NEW RELEASE BY IMZADI PUBLISHING!
DRAGONY RISING BY MICHAEL STEPHEN DAIGLE
Detective Frank Nagler has seen his hometown of Ironton, NJ go through many changes over the past several years, and lately scandals abound within the city’s government, the stench of its corruption imbedded deep, rivaling the dank stagnant stench emanating from the old bog just outside of town.
Detective Nagler has seen the worst of humanity, but nothing could have prepared him for the explosion that rocked the once thriving town, sending a section of Warren Street geysering into the air, suspended for a moment in time before collapsing into the rising flames in a shower of broken wooden walls, bricks, windowsills, bed frames, refrigerators and diner counter tops. The time had been recorded by the decorating, antique clock two blocks away whose cracked glass face shielded stopped hands.
The clues to this devastating crime are few and puzzling, leading down a rabbit hole and to a 15-year-old closed narcotics case, as well as a conglomerate of companies working towards an unknown goal – a goal that disregards the ever-increasing body count.
Danger always lurked in the shadows in Ironton but is Nagler prepared to face the most dangerous threat of all…Dragony Rising.
Enjoy this free preview of the first chapter in the next installation of the Frank Nagler Mystery Series!
The yellow kitchen chair
The kitchen chair caught Detective Frank Nagler’s attention.
There was something impossible about it, standing as it was untouched.
Downtown Ironton had blown up, after all.
And a kitchen chair untouched on the roof of the old theater made no sense to him, but there it was, even as a sizable chunk of downtown Ironton smoldered. Buildings cracked open and collapsed. Stinging smoke and dust rose like a war had started.
Nagler’s cop job was to make sense of the unexplained, yet with one foot on the guardrail of the highway above downtown, brow wrinkled as he puzzled at the notion that of all that stretched out before him, of everything he could see or imagine through the sunlight dappled haze – a burning, smoking, dismembered two-block section of downtown Ironton; and beyond that, a hundred hard-hatted searchers, waving and shouting words lost in the growling destructive discord, a brief sparkle of red and blue light flashing off the cracked windows and dusty air; and finally beyond it all, a huddled crowd of onlookers, witnesses to their world collapsing – of all that disorder, he was confounded by the sight of single, undamaged metal kitchen chair with yellow upholstery standing upright on the roof of the old theater a half-block way.
Ironton had been rocked at 5:15 that morning when a section of Warren Street was geysered into the air, stopped, suspended, then collapsed into the rising flames in a shower of broken wooden walls, bricks, windowsills, bed frames and refrigerators and diner counter tops. The time had been recorded by the decorative, antique clock two blocks away whose cracked glass face shielded stopped hands.
The ground shook for more than a mile in all directions, and the rumble had roused Nagler from his bed.
“What was that?” Lauren Fox asked shaking her head.
Nagler replied. “Earthquake?” He pulled back a window shade and said, “Jesus, look.”
The sky was a dusty, burning red; beyond the fire the eastern hills glowed orange from the sunrise.
Just as Lauren joined Nagler at the window both their phones squawked out the alert: “Explosion and fire. Warren and Blackwell.”
“Damn,” she said, reaching for the pants and sweater she had tossed to the floor the night before. “Call me later,” she yelled over a shoulder as she hopped and tripped into her pants, stumbled into her shoes, and pulled the sweater over her bare back.
“Be safe,” he called back as the kitchen door slammed.
He yanked the blinds fully open and absorbed the darkening sky filling with flame-tinged smoke.
Warren and Blackwell, he thought. The center of town. Who died? He wanted to believe it was an accident, but he was too long an investigator to pretend that things happened for no reason.
Which is what led him to climb to the highest point near downtown, the new bridge that crossed the river a few hundred feet away, to gain some perspective on the blast scene: What he guessed was an explosive natural gas leak had destroyed that block of Warren Street and the flying debris had damaged neighboring buildings filled with businesses and apartments. Walls between structures had caved in after the explosion and fire. But what caused the leak?
The air was so still he could hear the shouts of searchers, the grinding of engines and the thud of debris being dumped in metal truck hoppers.
But there was that single kitchen chair.
“That seems odd,” he mused. “Is that even possible?”
“What’s odd?” a voice to his left asked.
“That you’d find me here, for one thing,” Nagler said to reporter Jimmy Dawson. “Aren’t you required to be down there, at the scene, bugging the hell out of someone else? I’m not even supposed to be here.”
Dawson lowered his smart phone that he had been using to record video of the scene. “That’s why I knew you’d be here. When did you ever follow the rules? Actually, I saw you sneaking around the barriers and figured you’d find the best vantage point.”
Nagler waved his hand toward the scene. “So, what have you heard?”
Dawson slipped the phone into a pocket. “Same as you. Guesses. Natural gas, old buildings.”
“Look at all the damage, though. That make sense?”
Dawson smiled and shrugged. Frank’s been off the front lines for six months and still understands more than the cops on the beat. “Makes sense till it doesn’t,” he muttered.
“What do you think about that?” Nagler asked, pointing to the kitchen chair. “How is that even possible? That chair, on that roof? Not crushed, a perfect four-point landing? Okay, the blast and the fire hollowed out the buildings, but the gas lines would have entered below street level. Even if you filled one of those restaurant cellars with gas, that’s what twenty-by ten? Twenty-by-ten what, cubed? Squared? I’ve been down there. They’re damp and moldy, but maybe that doesn’t matter…” He glanced again at the chair on the theater roof. “How much force would it take to blow a chair a half a block in the air from inside a building?”
Dawson laughed. “I don’t know.”
“I know some army explosives experts at Picatinny. Could ask them.”
Nagler smiled. “You know, Dawson, that sounds like a really good idea. Why don’t you do that? Tell me what they say.” Sourly, “After I’m reinstated.”
Dawson blew out a long breath. “You need to get back to work, Frank. This place needs you back to work.”
Nagler rolled his head on his shoulders, closed his eyes, and sighed. “I’ve got one more meeting with the chief, Jimmy. But then I read something, hear something, and I recall their faces and the shots and the screaming. Then I sit in Leonard’s and look at the plaques hung over the door…” He squeezed his face shut and glanced at Dawson. “And then I wonder if I want to come back.” His voice was as hollow as a bender the day after. “But then I see this…” he nodded to the destruction, “…and I think this is all I know.”
Jimmy Dawson looked at the ground and then at Nagler. “Hey, look…”
“No, Jimmy, don’t.” Nagler stared again at the kitchen chair and coughed. “Now if the blast did not launch the chair into the air where it did a somersault and landed on its feet, why is it there?” He raised his eyebrows and twisted his lips into an odd grimace.
“Got it, Frank.” He, too, stared at the chair. “Maybe they wanted a front row seat to the fireworks.”
Nagler decided that standing at the corner of Blackwell and Warren was like cowering in the bottom of a metal drum while steel balls were tossed in. Motors rumbled and ravenous shovels shrieked. The pounded ground rocked in explosive waves that shivered up his legs while the sound bounced between the aching walls of what remained of the broken buildings, which vibrated like a pitchfork and threw the untuned screech into the trembling air until three blasts of an air horn would bring cries of “Silence!” and “Quiet!!” and the air stood still awaiting again that scratch underground, or a whisper of “help.”
He waved at Fire Chief Damien Green, who was standing a couple piles of debris away; Green waved back and yelled through his face shield something Nagler guessed was, “Be careful,” and swept his left arm in a vague circle in what Nagler thought was a suggested route across the mess.
Nagler signaled back and moved slowly to his right, his bad left ankle screaming back every time something he stepped on shifted or broke. He would pause, grit his teeth, and reach out a stretched hand to some object for balance. Of all the things that should have healed in the months he was first out on leave and then academy duty he thought it would have been his ankle.
Finally at Green’s side, the men shook hands.
The fire chief’s face was smoke stained below the outline of his mask. His eyes were pained, pupils collapsed in the center of his brown eyes and surrounded by angry wrinkles the result of a few hours of squinting.
“You back?” Green asked Nagler. He leaned toward Nagler to avoid shouting while searchers on the pile strained to hear any sound.
“Maybe a couple weeks. One more test to see if I’m emotionally stable after watching three of my friends being murdered in public.” Nagler coughed out some smoke. “The shrink will say I’m not ready, and the chief will say, well, let him do desk duty for six more months, and I might say, put me back in the field or retire me. I keep walking around the answer.”
Nagler considered his reply. He had run out of ways to answer differently the same question.
“Will they retire you?” Green’s shocked response.
Nagler sighed. “Not likely. But you know, chief, there’s a moment when part of me doesn’t give a shit. I think I could walk away tomorrow and take one of three or four offers to head up security at a corporation. God, I’d make three times as much, workdays, holidays off, vacations, and not get shot at.”
Green chuckled, his first light mood in hours. “Sounds ideal. If you go, demand they have a fire safety officer on site and I’m your man.”
Behind them, a siren blast sounded an all-clear and the grinding and thumping rose again.
Nagler smiled. Green was a good chief, a good man, brave as hell. Nagler recalled how Green had, against all protocol, led a crew into a warehouse fire a few years back when a firefighter got trapped. Lot of finger wagging. But Green said, “We saved her.” That’s all that mattered.
Nagler nodded toward the debris. “Whatdya think?” He winked. “Unofficially.”
Green wiped his mouth and hid a grin.
“Probably gas, a leak.,” Green said, voice rising. “We won’t know till we get there. Odd … two years ago?” He shrugged, “The gas company … new mains, all new junctions, water heaters and furnaces. Ten blocks. You remember that. Traffic was fucked up all summer.”
Nagler nodded. Yeah, way worse than usual.
“Big improvement,” Green said. “We had calls about gas smells for years. That mostly ended after the repairs.” Green leaned in and placed one hand as a shield on the side of his mouth. “But anything can happen. Pipe gets whacked, someone shifts a water heater … you know, a guy with a wrench thinks he’s a plumber … But fill an enclosed space with natural gas, and all it takes is a light switch.” Green shook his head. “There’s restaurants here – Barry’s, right in the middle – a refrigerator kicks on … and you can blow the front off a building.”
Nagler hadn’t thought. Jesus, Barry’s. “Anyone…?”
“Victims?” Green yelled. The noise level dropped. “Not sure.” He lowered his voice. “Too early. Still extinguishing hot spots. Haven’t found anyone. Shop owners are checking on their employees and social services is trying to find landlords and who lived in the apartments. Another odd thing? Just sold, this whole block from Blackwell to Bassett, and the attached buildings on Blackwell to the theater. Said it might have been the biggest real estate deal in the history of the city. I heard a billion.”
“I remember that. You’re right. Big, big deal. So probably not arson for profit?”
The tension and weariness of the long night finally landed on Green’s shoulders. “Damn it, Frank. Why spend all that money to buy it, just to burn it down? Insurance? Never get all your money back. Makes no sense. On another day, under different circumstances I’d maybe ask who’s got something to gain by all this destruction. But today…” He shook his head. “Today, I’ve got to find out who is buried under that pile of shit.”
An airhorn blast announced an all-clear and several loud but unclear shouts echoed down the street. Green’s radio garbled out a call. “Frank, gotta go. I’ll fill you in later. Unofficially.” He turned, then stopped. “Unless the deal went south.”
Nagler scanned the chaotic, hazy scene as responders hand crawled over smoking, steaming rubble and pulled away boards and shovels full of brick and dirt and stepped back as a hot spot flared and doused the flames.
He turned back to Blackwell Street, filled with cops in black riot gear, helmeted, faceless, ready for action. Ready for war, more like it, he thought. That response puzzled him. Why aren’t they knocking on doors, seeking witnesses? Yeah, it might be an accident. But until the fire marshal declares that finding, our job it to search for clues, facts. He laughed softly. “Right, our job.”
He turned when he heard his name called.
“Frank. Hey, Frank.”
It was Barry, the diner owner. He was covered with dust. They embraced.
“You’re okay?” Nagler asked.
Barry’s eyes were red and clenched with worry.
“I can’t find Tony,” he blurted out. “Can’t find him. He was opening up early… his phone don’t ring.” He ran a hand through his wet, dirty hair. “Fuck, Franky. His wife. He’s got two kids…”
Nagler grabbed Barry’s shoulders.
“Hey, Barry, Hey, man. Slow down. What about the restaurant.”
Barry shook his head. “Restaurant’s insured, man. Who gives a shit?”
“No. I mean. Is there a back way in, off the alley, maybe? Isn’t that how you get deliveries? I’ve been coming there for what thirty years, and I’ve never seen you get a delivery, so it makes me wonder what it is that you exactly serve…”
Barry breathed deeply and chuckled. “You don’t really want to know, Frank.”
The mood broke and Barry focused on Nagler’s question.
“You know, maybe Tony came in and smelled the gas, and took off before it blowed up. He’s a goofy guy, can’t sing, but he ain’t stupid.”
“Good,” Nagler said, nodding. “Look, I just talked to the fire chief and so far they haven’t found anyone in the wreckage.”
Nagler looked past Barry’s shoulder and saw an officer he knew.
“Maria,” he called out. “Lieutenant Ramirez.”
Ramirez slumped and shook her head, and then smiled. She walked over to Nagler and patted his cheek twice, while biting her lower lip.
“Jesus, Frank, good you see you, but you’re not…”
“I’m not,” he replied with a slight grin. “You never saw me.”
Ramirez raised her eyebrows and smiled. “Alright. Okay. Saw who?”
“So, look,” Nagler said. “This is Barry, from the diner. You know Barry, right?
Barry nodded. “Four egg omelet, chorizo, pepper jack and about ten shakes of hot sauce. Hey, Lieutenant.”
“Hey, Barry. Could use that about now. Can I get it to go?” They all smiled. “Sorry about your place. You okay?” Ramirez glanced at the debris. “A mess.”
“He’s looking for Tony, his cook,” Nagler said.
“Sergeant Hanrahan’s heading that up. At the library. It’s outside the hot zone.” She slapped her hands on her hips. She was smiling. “Damn it, Frank, how’d you get inside the perimeter?”
Nagler ignored the question and waved a hand in the air and shrugged. He, too, was smiling. “Great. So, look, Barry, you find Tony’s wife, check with her. I’ll go to the library. Call me. You got my number right?” Ramirez started to interrupt; Nagler held up one hand. “Wait a minute. Call Maria, instead. I’m not actually official.”
“Right,” Barry said, “I forgot. Thanks, Frank, Lieutenant.” And then he walked away, placing a call.
“You gotta get out of here, Frank. If command sees you, they’ll…”
“I know, they’ll bust me. But know what, until just this minute I didn’t give a shit. I might have even come down here so they could see me and bust me.”
Ramirez placed a gloved hand on Nagler’s chest. “Frank, we need you back. Don’t think like that. Clear your head, compadre.” She patted his cheek twice again, and then walked away.
Nagler watched as Ramirez called out, “Hey. Gather up,” and then issued commands to the officers.
He slipped behind a fire truck at Warren and Blackwell, making his way around the hot zone to the library, just to see Hanrahan.
Clusters of onlookers huddled at the curbs, couples tightly embracing, pulling children to their hips, women sobbing into the shoulders of other women; this, he thought, more than sirens and shouted orders, the crashing, and the roar of fire, this is what needs attention.
This is what we do, he thought. What I do. Ironton, N.J. Police Detective Frank Nagler. That’s who I’ve been for so long. It’s tattooed on my skin. I wear it to work each morning, take it off at night and put it back on the next day. Who would I be without that?