Scarecrow and Mrs. King: In Search of…
By C. Hathaway Chapter 2 Taken
“Day of wrath, that day of burning, Seer and Sibyl speak concerning, All the world to ashes turning.” (Dies irae, dies illa! Solvet saeclumin favilla, Teste David cum Sybilla.) -Tommaso Di Celano, Dies Irae
Rushing feet moved into the already burning building. Outside a crowd of tenants and on-lookers had gathered staring with fixed fascination at the smoke beginning to billow from the elegant brownstone apartment building.
In the distance sirens wailed and nearby the metallic bleeping of smoke and heat detectors split the night air. A heavy ominous scent of smoke overlay the cherry blossom smell of spring.
“Coming through!” The first emergency response team’s ambulance had pulled up in front of the smoking structure, and the first medic out of the vehicle intoned the standard phrase, pushing two elderly residents out of his way. “Coming through.”
The rest of his team, the two people following him, were dressed as he was in hospital whites covered with fire department issue slickers—black with wide reflective yellow bands. Each of the men had large red-cross emblazoned bands around their upper arms.
Inside the building, the emergency team wasted no time. They took a turn towards the lobby elevator only to be shooed by the building superintendent who lived on the first floor to the nearby emergency evacuation stairway.
Once inside the concrete tower that was the fire stairs one of the three “medics” swore under his breath.
“Damned efficient of him.” He gestured with his free hand back towards the lobby and the building superintendent. “Now, we gotta climb.”
The man cursed again more fluently as he tripped in the dim red emergency lighting. Unerringly, the trio proceeded up to the third floor and swung down the hallway that led to Stetson’s corner apartment.
Moving low through the now smoke filled hall, they found that the job of “breaking down the door” had been done for them…probably by the force of the initial explosion.
They weren’t worried about the possibility of secondary explosions. The three “medics” knew there was no danger of gas leaks. They knew exactly what had happened, how, and why. In fact, they’d been bored out of their minds for the last five hours waiting for something, anything to happen. The leader of the trio only hoped that no one had noticed their “emergency” vehicle that had been parked for an unconscionably long time in a nearby strip mall.
Brushing past the splintered remains of the apartment’s door, the men entered what had been Lee’s home.
There was thicker smoke inside the apartment making visibility strictly limited…and there were some desultory flames licking up one wall of the livingroom, a wall that backed onto the bedroom closet. A gapping hole through that wall showed an image, through smoke and flames of the bedroom window to which the fatal tripwire had been connected.
“Through or around?” the second medic asked. His voice sounded raspy as he spoke over the hissing noise of the air-tank mask he wore.
The leader motioned them to the left. Days before he had memorized the layout of this particular apartment. He knew it by heart, and he knew where the explosives had been placed and where their victim should be.
Navigating as a single unit the men moved through the smoke-filled livingroom, down a short hall and into what had been Lee Stetson’s bedroom. Their quarry was on the floor near the bed. He had clearly been blown away from the heart of the explosion by its force.
The one legitimate medic among the three of them felt quickly for a pulse.
“Is he alive?” the leader asked.
“Yeah,” the medic affirmed as he drew back away from the unconscious spy. “He’ll live.”
“That arm looks nasty.” The second man’s voice quavered just a bit as he helped shift the motionless figure into a fully reclining position on the floor. As Lee’s left hand was pulled from between the bedding, his now-useless gun came with it.
“Could’a been worse,” the medic informed him. “Looks like a comminuted fracture, but at least it didn’t break the skin.” The gun wasn’t important to the medic. The patient was.
“Yeah?” the second man said, his voice making it a question. He tried to sound as if the medical terminology had made sense to him.
Noticing for the first time the weapon Lee had been trying to reach when he lost consciousness, the leader of the group carefully removed it from the bedding and passed it to his helper. It was the gun Lee always carried. The second man dropped it unceremoniously into a deep pouch in the medical kit they had carried into the building with them.
A quick scan of what was left of the bedroom told the leader of the group that Stetson hadn’t taken all of his usual precautions. Therefore, it was probable he hadn’t had time to hide what they were looking for either.
Grabbing Lee’s jacket from the bedside chair, the ‘medic’ quickly removed the contents from its pockets: four pieces of mail, a set of keys, and a white linen handkerchief. The mail was nothing special. There was an ad from a downtown clothier, a pale violet envelope that smelled faintly of expensive cologne, a shopper from the local businessmen’s association, and an insurance bill. None of them looked promising, but he took them all stuffing them into the medical kit with Lee’s gun.
A quick, but thorough search of the rest of the bedroom and the livingroom involved pulling and dumping drawers and manhandling furniture to be sure nothing was secreted under or behind it. That job was relegated to the second man who found little of interest, except for Lee’s spare gun and a large manila envelope. Both had been taped securely to the back and bottom of one of the drawers in Lee’s marble-top dresser.
The envelope contained a packet of passports and other identification materials, all of which bore different names and Lee Stetson’s photograph. They might or might not be important. The man dropped them into the medical kit with the mail and closed its false bottom.
"Load him up, and let's get out of here," the leader spoke harshly using his authority to get them moving. It was important that they be long gone before any real emergency teams responded. Now that they were finally in a position to take ‘Scarecrow’ he didn’t want anything, like a nosy cop or a hero from another fire company or ambulance team, to queer the deal.
Swiftly they transferred the unconscious spy’s body onto the bright yellow backboard that they had hauled into the building with them. The medic took a few moments to carefully position the obviously broken arm parallel the patient’s side. There was no way he could set a multiple-break fracture that looked this bad in the field, but neither was he willing to leave it totally untreated. He could see no cause to create unnecessary medical problems.
Lee’s hands and wrists were secured to his thighs with wide strips of silver duct tape and his legs were bound together at ankles, knees, and thighs. A sterile, metallic silver rescue blanket was wrapped around him to hide those unusual additions to normal rescue procedures, and his body was then secured to the backboard with the normal, wide, seatbelt-like straps forming a 'X' across his chest. Additional straps held a cervical collar tightly around his neck, and an oxygen mask served to double as a gag just in case he came to and realized what was happening in mid-‘rescue.' That didn’t seem likely, but it was always better to be safe than sorry.
"Ready," the medic informed the other two…adjusting the oxygen mask over their prisoner’s face a final time.
"Ready," the leader replied and, picking up one end of the stretcher, led the trio and their burden back outside.
Behind them the fire continued to burn desultorily in the area that had been Lee's closet, bedroom, and livingroom. The bomb had been a shaped-charge designed to force the maximum amount of shrapnel out through the closet door and, if they had gotten lucky enough, directly into Lee Stetson. It had worked, not quite as planned, but it had worked.
The man in charge found himself wondering what the hell Stetson had been doing for those five hours while they had waited cramped and frustrated in the “borrowed” and “too obvious” ambulance.
Remembering the shreds of pale blue material that still clung to ‘Scarecrow’s’ body, he realized that the famous ‘Scarecrow’ had been in bed…probably asleep while they’d bickered and pissed and moaned at each other through the midnight hours. He snorted to himself. Somehow the image of ‘Scarecrow’—the best or, at least, one of the best espionage agents the U.S. employed—coming home and simply going to bed did not fit with the older man’s personal image of the debonair young spy.
The last man out of the apartment freed the final cylinder of ‘oxygen’ from his emergency kit, set a small timer on the incendiary device, and rolled it back into what had once been the apartment’s livingroom area. It bumped against a mahogany and glass coffee table and stopped.
"Move!" He had neither the time nor the inclination to be polite. They needed out of here…. Now! The second device would go off in a matter of minutes.
They were just moving through the outer doors of the apartment building when a secondary explosion behind them broke more windows and the fire began raging in earnest.
Startled and frightened, tenants and neighbors milled about on the sidewalk and street outside the once posh apartment building. A few of them watched, as the nice young man from the third floor was loaded into the waiting ambulance. No one was really paying a lot of attention. Most of them had other things on their minds…like where they were going to sleep tonight and what if anything of their lives and possessions would be salvageable after this fire. Most were in shock and simply watched the flames that now began to devour more and more of the structure obviously breaking through into the fourth story and, in one place, the roof.
"Better call in a second alarm," one of the ‘medics’ spoke quietly to his cohort. "Don't want to burn down the whole complex."
"First units in'll do that."
"Yeah, but it'll look funny if we don't at least go through the motions."
Pulling off the self-contained breathing apparatus he’d worn into the building, the driver picked up a handheld microphone attached to the fire radio inside the ambulance’s cab.
“Unit, on scene, at Georgetown Empire Apartments fire requests additional units. I repeat. Requests additional units. This is gonna be at least a two- alarm one.” The radio clicked and hissed as the message was directed and redirected through the appropriate channels.
With a buzz and a rasp of static, a dispatcher’s voice queried, “Who is this? Where are you?”
“Georgetown Empire Apartments and you better get those units rolling pronto!” He pulled out the microphone jack to effectively end all communication and sat back stiffly. That might just have been the dumbest thing he’d ever done.
“Ready to roll,” he called back to the two men securing their captive on the collapsible stretcher in the back of the ambulance.
“Yeah,” the leader informed him, scarcely noticing when the young medic looked up at him in surprise. “Get us out of here. Get us out of here, now!”
The engine turned over on the first try. You had to say that for ambulance companies: they did keep their rigs in top-notch condition. Reaching over the dash, the driver found and activated the lights and siren. In the back, the medic jumped slightly and hurriedly finished securing the backboard to the stretcher. He didn’t have the monitors set up yet or an IV in place, but it looked like they were out of time.
At the strident wail of the siren, some of the crowd seemed to break free from their shock, but by then it was too late, the ambulance was already moving.
John Lawton, an older gentleman who had asked the medics to check on his wife’s breathing when they had first arrived, grumbled to himself. Young folks today had no respect for age, none at all. Rubbing one arthritic foot against the leg of his pajamas he found himself wishing he’d remembered to slide on his slippers before following Harriet out of their apartment.
The ambulance pulled slowly away from the curb maneuvering through the crowd of pedestrians. It gathered speed as it twisted around parked cars and turned a block or two further down the street moving toward the nearest expressway.
“Now, why in Hades would they take the beltway?” the old man huffed to himself. There was a perfectly good hospital in Georgetown. He scratched his head and drew his old housecoat more tightly around himself. He wondered where on Earth they were taking that nice young man.
The wail of more and different sirens split the night air. Fire trucks, real fire trucks, not just rescue vehicles and ambulances, pulled up before the building that had been their home. The old man circled his wife’s waist with his arms.
“He’ll be all right.” Surprised John looked down at Harriet. She always had known him better than he knew himself. “He’s on his way to the hospital now. They’ll take care of him.”
John nodded his head in agreement with the truth of her statement, but on his lips was the taste of ashes.
End of Chapter 2
To be continued…