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Stifled
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The Spectator
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 by Frank Shortt
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       Bill Wilson walked with head down, wrestling with a horrendous problem. It had kept him awake all night and still no answer came!
       Bill Wilson had joined the fire department in Pineland two years ago as a fire inspector. He had left the Midwest thinking he was on a job going nowhere, his wife had agreed and they had packed up heading for the West Coast.
       Bill was pondering, “Should I tell what I know and lose my job, or should I keep quiet and live with a bad conscience?” There had been an apartment fire the day before and the owner of the complex was brother-in-law to the fire chief in Bill’s department. One lady had lost her life trying to save her little dog, and there were several injuries because, as Bill found, there were no sprinkling systems operative and no fire warning systems had been working in any of the units. If this leaked out to the public, the chief’s brother in law was in for a huge lawsuit!
       Walt Drummond, the aging, overweight fire chief, stood up as Bill approached his desk. Bill noted that this was not his usual behavior, as he was a very proud, as well as, somewhat lazy individual. He had complained to Bill recently, in a confidential moment, that his cholesterol was elevating. “Well, how are you doing this morning, Mr. Fire inspector? the chief inquired. I trust that you had a good night’s sleep and arrived ready for a great day!”
       Bill’s skin crawled as he knew what the chief was driving at. “I’m afraid I had a restless night, Walt. From the hints that have been thrown lately I feel that someone here is hoping that I will booger the reports on that apartment fire at Hope and Vine. I have heard from a couple of battalion chiefs already that the fire warning systems were in such bad condition from the heat that it would be impossible to tell if they were operative before the fire. It has been reported that no one in the building heard any alarms going off and that no sprinkling systems went off during the heat of the blaze!”
       “I sent a unit to that particular complex just a couple of weeks ago to check for fire protection, they had nothing unusual to report. They said that a couple of warnings were issued to have batteries changed in the fire warning systems,” The Chief haltingly reported! When Bill inspected the different apartments in the unit, he had found that several fire alarms had been left intact and that corrosion had built up in the battery compartments so badly that it prevented them from sounding when the fire started, thus the discrepancy!
       In Bill’s preliminary report he noted that several people, identifying themselves as tenants had approached him, not knowing who he was at the time, and had complained that they had heard no alarm going off and that no sprinkler system had gone off during the fire. They must have thought that Bill was a reporter as he carried a clipboard and a camera. “Chief, I am afraid that we have a difference of opinion here, Bill stated. My report is a little different from the first reports of the battalion chiefs.” As of yet, no reporters were being allowed on the premises of the fire, and especially in the rec hall being used for temporary housing for the tenants who had suffered loss of their units. These tenants were virtual prisoners being fed by the owner of the apartment complex.
       “Aw, Bill, we can’t always be sure that what we saw was how it was when the fire occurred. We just have to take the word of the battalion chiefs on this one”, Walt retorted!
        Bill replied, “I know fire systems, and I know what I saw when I inspected the unit after the fire. The sprinkler system had been disconnected to, probably save water, and the fire alarm batteries had not been changed in several months, maybe years. Due to someone’s negligence, one person is dead and several injured. I cannot just turn my head from this one!”
       There was tension in the office that could be cut with a knife! Silence ensued. The chief turned every shade of red, fumbled with some papers on his desk before saying, “Bill, I need your answer today before the press starts questioning those tenants. Take the rest of the day off and think deeply how this is going to affect the department as a whole and, especially how it will affect your future employment in this department!” Bill knew a threat when he heard one.
       Bill had heard from more than one employee of the Pineland Fire Department how that some reports of fires had been very vague in the past. Like the one at the warehouse of the largest manufacturing plant in the city. It was alleged by the press that it was an inside job. Walt Drummond had gotten involved in this one also, the results being that some oily rags had become ignited due to spontaneous combustion and burned a large section of the warehouse. It was learned later that the owner had needed some quick cash and the insurance premiums were all up to date. Nothing was ever done because Walt Drummond’s word was well respected in the Pineland community. The fire inspector suddenly left the city and this is when Bill Wilson had been hired to take his place. It had been noted that Walt Drummond lived in the most luxurious section of the city known as Lake Park, and that he always seemed to keep up with the latest models in automobiles.
       Down-heartedly, Bill left the Chief’s office. He thought, “How will I tell my wife I am about to resign? I’ve dragged her all over the country trying to find a place where we could settle down. How will I explain to my children that they will be transferred to a new school soon? They are just beginning to get adjusted to the neighborhood and the school system on the West Coast. We’ve met some really nice folks in this neighborhood, especially at the gathering where we have Bible study each week. This could turn out to be the greatest battle I ever fought!” Bill breathed these thoughts as a prayer.
       After lunch, Bill heard a rap on the front door. It was a couple of the firefighters who had helped in squelching the recent apartment fire. “Hello, Tom, hello Ralph, what brings you guys out my way?” Bill greeted them as cheerily as possible.
       These two had agreed beforehand that Tom would do the talking as he was the most eloquent. “We just felt like we needed to talk to you and felt that you were someone we could confide in without it being spread all over the department.”
       Bill knew why two had come, it was just in case Bill wanted to say something to the authorities later it would be his word against two. “What we talk about here, stays here, Bill assured them. So, what’s on your minds?” Tom was hesitant to speak.
       “We have been noticing some strange goings on in the department the last few years and have been hesitant to say anything. Reports of fires have been filed us knowing that was not how it happened at all. We have noticed that fire inspectors don’t last very long in the department, something about disagreements with Walt Drummond. Too bad the mayor and Drummond are chess partners.”
       “Yeah, Ralph chimed in now that the chestnuts were out of the fire! I’ve been asked to recheck some areas after the fire inspector had made the preliminary report just to find out that any pertinent information had been removed. Sure enough when the inspector returned, there would be not a trace of the reported information he had put in the report! There appears to be someone taking some bribes underneath the table, if you want my opinion!” These men grew bolder as the afternoon wore on.
       After the two men left, Bill waited for his wife to arrive as she was taking some time off work to prepare for their son’s tenth birthday. He needed to bounce all this off her before he made any permanent decisions. She arrived shortly after two p.m. “Why Bill, why are you home so early? I thought I would have an empty house to be able to prepare Billy a great birthday dinner. Dell was a trim lady of thirty-five with great big blue eyes that sparkled any time she became in any way excited.
       “I was asked to take the afternoon off to determine my future, Bill replied. It seems that Walt Drummond and I have a difference of opinion!”
       “About what?” She wanted to know.
       “About the apartment fire at Hope and Vine yesterday!” And with that, Bill explained the whole sordid mess to her in detail. He also told her about the ultimatum that Walt had covertly conveyed to him.
       Dell’s eyes sparkled! She fidgeted with the potatoes she had begun to peel as they talked. Small beads of sweat popped out on her forehead, but not from the heat in the kitchen. “Bill, there is a greater power than Walt Drummond! We have read the Word, we have believed the Word, now, we must apply the Word! Bill agreed.
       Bill kissed Dell tenderly as she bade him a fond ‘so long’ and as he left the driveway. At three o’clock sharp she headed for the old divan to seek Him who was a present help in time of need.
       Bill arrived at the office just as Walt Drummond would normally be preparing to leave. He noticed a pall as he entered the room. He noticed that Walt’s desk was empty. “What’s going on?” Bill inquired of the secretary.
       “Walt suddenly felt sharp pains in his chest and by the time the paramedics arrived, he was looking like he was gone!” Bill remembered what Dell had said about a ‘Greater Power’ before he had left his home.
       “What time did this happen?” Asked Bill.
       “It was three o’clock, straight up, I looked at the time to make sure!” replied the crestfallen secretary.
       Walt was pronounced dead when the ambulance carrying his body arrived at the emergency unit of General Hospital. Bill went home that night with a heavy heart. Unfortunately, Walt had made one too many mistaken reports!