Tilting At Windmills: The Case Of The Mansion In The Sky
Published: February 18th, 2022
By: Shelly Reuben

Tilting at Windmills: The Case of the Mansion in the Sky

Since I started merrily dragging you through the ashes, I completely forgot to tell you about our very first case at Charles G. King Associates. Looking back, it amazes me that I learned so much in so few hours.

The fire was discovered at 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday. The location was a twelve room condominium on Fifth Avenue. It had four big bedrooms, four bathrooms, and four servants’ rooms. Sprinkled in (I’m looking at the floor plan as I write) were a large kitchen; a walk-in pantry; a library, and a servants’ hall, whatever that is. It also had a passenger elevator; a service elevator; and a huge hall that connected the living room, dining room, and library to the rest of the house. The apartment took up the entire sixth floor.

The owners of this extravaganza were Porter Kendrick, Jr. and his wife Grace. Porter was a successful corporate lawyer and the son of Porter Kendrick Sr., a three-term senator who had once run for president of the United States … and almost won. Porter senior had left Porter junior the condominium in his will, and it had been in the family since the 1930s.

Grace Kendrick, who hired Charlie to find out where the fire started, was one of those slim, elegant women who wear their hair in a “chignon” while the rest of us wear ours in a bun. She was gracious, graceful, and charming. So was their home.

Everything about it was more like a house than apartment, and more like a mansion than a house. Not a new mansion. One of those old-money places you might see in a 1940s movie. With big sink-into sofas, well-worn Aubusson rugs, books and magazines flung carelessly here and there, and probably an eight-horse stable in the backyard. It screamed comfort over pretension. It also screamed Impossible Wealth.

The dining room table sat twenty-two, and original oil paintings – I’m pretty sure I saw a Turner and a Matisse – hung on the living room walls. Of the four bedrooms in the servant’s quarters, only one was in use by a live-in cook. The others had been turned into small guest rooms.

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At the time of the fire, the house was occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Kendrick, their three children (ages 7, 11, and 17), the cook, two houseguests, ten cats, and two dogs. One of the houseguests, Claude Caraway, an 82 year old retired judge, awoke early because he thought he smelled smoke. He followed his nose to the kitchen, where he saw flames shooting out a doorway. He awakened Porter and Grace, and they called the doorman on the house phone, while Claude aroused everyone else. They all exited down the stairwell adjacent to the kitchen. I don’t know how they also managed to rescue the twelve pets, but they did.

Five days later, Charlie and I arrived to conduct our investigation. I say “our,” but all I did was follow him around like a tourist at an archeological dig. In fact, one of the first things I learned that day was that a fire scene actually IS an archeological dig. Of sorts.

The fire had clearly started in the kitchen. Not only did the burn patterns tell us this, we had a statement from the retired judge. Charlie pointed out another indicator to me before we left the dining room, which I found then (and still find) fascinating. He said, “Look at the candles on the wall outside the pantry, and then look at the light bulbs in the chandelier over the dining room table.”

I did. He asked me what I noticed, and it took me only a second to reply, “They’re all leaning toward the kitchen.” And so they were. They had melted in the direction of the fire.

We continued to follow a mid-level pattern of soot and smoke from the dining room to the pantry, and from there to the kitchen – a fire-damaged, sodden, charred, debris-filled wreck. Other than silverware and dishes, which Grace Kendrick had salvaged, everything was where it had been after the firefighters left.

Remember, this was my first fire, so to me it was just a black and gray mess. I could no more differentiate a broken bowl or a jug than I could have distinguished a carrot from a pea in an incinerated pot of stew. I did, however, manage to make a fool of myself over the refrigerator. The inside plastic liner had burned and melted, much like a marshmallow in a campfire. The shelves had collapsed, the food was rotting, and the refrigerator door hung from one hinge like a dead bird with a broken wing.

“Charlie,” I exclaimed. “The fire must have started here!”

He quietly took me aside so that Mrs. Kendrick could not hear (she was escorting us through the fire scene). He explained, “The only things that keep a refrigerator door shut are small magnets imbedded in a rubber gasket around the door’s perimeter to seal the cold air inside. Once the refrigerator is engulfed in flames, the rubber gasket melts, the door pops open, and fire rushes in.”

After Charlie eliminated everything else in the room that could have caused the fire (stove, electrical outlets, light fixtures, etc.) his eyes drifted to the south side of the kitchen. Two double-door cabinets started about 18 inches above a countertop and continued up to the ceiling. All four doors off the cabinets had burned off, and the shelving inside was completely charred, most severely on the undersides.

On the wall beneath the cabinets were a four-socket outlet on the far left, and a two-socket outlet on the far right. Sitting on top of the Formica countertop were a popcorn maker and an electric coffeemaker (both unplugged), and a two-slice toaster and a blender (both plugged into the four-socket outlet). Plugged into the two-socket outlet on the far right was a small G.E. toaster oven.

All of these electric appliances, as well as the wall outlets were examined and eliminated as the cause of the fire. Except one. To quote from Charlie’s report: “The fire originated in the G.E. toaster oven located on the countertop. It shows internal distortion, heavy buckling, and severe heat underneath the appliance, including blistering of the Formica countertop and an isolated burn pattern directly behind the toaster oven on the splashboard. The fire generated intensive heat for a long period of time, but the discovery of the fire was delayed because the occupants were asleep at the time.”

Now we know where the fire started, but we still don’t know the why and the how. Did a defect in the toaster oven cause the fire? Or was there a living, breathing culprit involved?

To answer those questions, I will introduce you to the Kendrick family cook, a nice woman with only good intentions. Since I’ve changed all of the other names in this story, I might as well change hers as well. So I’ll call her “Hazel,” just for the fun of it. Hazel got up at 6:00 a.m., because she wanted to take some strawberries out of the freezer to thaw. She also brought a paper grocery bag filled with bread and rolls from the pantry into the kitchen. She set the bag down on the counter in front of the G.E. toaster oven, and then returned to bed.

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What Hazel did not know was that the bottom edge of the paper bag caught on the elevator lever at the front of the toast oven, and pushed it down. Depressing that lever started the toast-heating cycle, and since the bag stayed where she put it, kept the lever down. The cycle never completed itself, the coils continued to generate intense heat, and eventually nearby combustibles burst into flame. Because the fire department responded so quickly, fire was confined to the kitchen and pantry areas, but there was smoke, soot, and water damage through that beautiful mansion in the sky.

One last thought. As I was contemplating the graciousness of Grace Kendrick, wife of the son of a presidential candidate, I mused to Charlie, “Why do you think she hired us instead of her husband, the lawyer? Wouldn’t you think…?” And just like that, he popped the balloon of my incipient heroine worship.

“Because,” he said, imperturbable, cynical, and really quite wonderful, “if our Mr. Kendrick doesn’t like the findings in our fire report, which he won’t, because the fire was caused by a member of his household, he can pretend that he never read it. Then he can sue the manufacturer of the toaster for a defective product or the management of the building for a faulty electrical outlet.”

My mouth dropped open. Would a genteel lady who wore a chignon instead of a bun and has ten cats and two dogs be a party to something like that?”

Apparently so.

Along with the check that she sent to pay her bill, we got a lovely thank you note from that beautiful co-conspirator in a plot to defraud the company who managed the building that contained their condominium.

Thus ended our first case, and launched a successful career in fire investigation.

Lessons to be learned from all this?

Very simple.

One: don’t store the first draft of your Great American Novel (or your love letters) in the freezer compartment of your refrigerator, because if there is a fire, they will be incinerated.

Two: when you arn’t using it, UNPLUG YOUR TOASTER.

Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2022. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com