Before time was ever recorded, man discovered fire. Naturally, the discovery came with fear . . . then fascination. Fire served as a tool for beginning man.
In June 2023, a man with no prior history of accomplishments made a frightening discovery. Just like the early man, first came fear . . . then fascination.
A four story apartment building becomes complete smoldering rubble in a matter of hours. Fifteen people are consumed and die, wailing in confusion as they expire. Onlookers stared at the building in disbelief and awe.
No one dialed for a fire truck.
After the investigation, it was determined that it was a fire. But the strangest discovery came from the witness statements. Each story sounding exactly the same; irregular. Every single one of them had said that the building wasn’t on fire at all. That it just mysteriously disintegrated into thin air. The bricks and wood blackened and spread, almost like a plague spreading along the outline. Before they knew it, the building began disappearing. The smell was awful. There was no smoke, no flames.
The people inside clamped to their windows and screamed in agony as their rooms where decaying before their eyes, as their skin melted on the glass they were beating upon. Immense heat sucked all the life out of the building.
As a chief arson investigator, I’ve never come across a more unsettling case.
When you’re dealing with fire, you’re dealing with a fickle mistress. It’s expected for her to ruin the lives of those she touches. But when the mistress turns into the mistress that never was . . . then you begin to question.
I was under the impression that nothing could change the elements surrounding us. Wind still blows, water flows, earth grows, fire shows. Nothing to it, really. It’s basic common knowledge. That’s what I thought.
Until I seen it firsthand.
A Hobo, pushing his cart along Lineage Drive spots something he can’t comprehend. He thinks he’s going crazy. So, with the change he saved up from cans, he takes it upon himself to call somebody. Anybody. That one ‘anybody’ contacts the fire department. They arrive on the scene, bringing me along for some kind of explanation to this madness.
An abandoned factory near the bridge. Even as I see it, I still can’t believe it. I could feel the heat, but there are no flames. There is no glow. The damn monstrosity of a worn building is disappearing right before my eyes, seemingly all by itself.
And instead of being greeted by loud, licking, roaring flames, I’m standing there in the dark hearing nothing but a slow sizzle.
I’m snapped out of my idiot trance as the boys felt that the tradition of rushing water would not let them down. They spray in a sweeping motion with the fire hose. It seems to be slowing down the process, but with black night being unforgivable, they weren’t sure where to aim. They began testing patterns. It was remarkable. For centuries, man has been dealing with fire the old fashioned way. But on that night, all the professionalism was drained out of these fine young men as quickly as the water rushing out of the once useful hose.
I came home beaten and battered, smelling like phantom smoke, feeling as if God decided to play a joke on me.
After 12 hours of firefighting, I went in to survey the scene. The chemical tests had later confirmed that it was indeed a fire. But there was a faint trace of something else. A scent that I picked up that the computer dubbed UNKNOWN. Now isn’t that the topsy-turvy way. What technology couldn’t find, my nose could. And I don’t even have that good of a sense of smell. I consider myself normal, not special at all.
I down some hard whiskey even though it’s illegal now. I don’t care.
The phone rings and it’s morning. I’m still wearing the clothes from the night before. There’s drool on the collar of my overcoat. My breath tastes foul. I yank myself from my recliner.
I must’ve dropped the glass in the middle of the night.
I pick up the small, dime-sized receiver, and stick it in my ear. After tapping it twice, the thing reads my fingerprint and connects me with the call.
“Hurst!” a voice cries.
“Wa-what? Who? Tone it down a bit.”
“It’s Danbarid. Where the fuck have you been? I’ve been calling you all morning!”
“I took a sedative, yeah, to help me sleep.” I lied.
“There’s no time! There’s no time!”
“Time for what?”
“Hurst, I’m sorry! There was no way of knowing. It was another one of those disintegrators again!”
“Are you serious? Where the hell are all these coming from?”
“Hurst! Pay attention! There’s more to this!”
“Spit it out, then! I sure as hell ain‘t stoppin‘ ya!”
“Jake and Maggie were in it.”
Jake and Maggie Hurst. Brother and sister. Both married. Both have kids. Both very close. Both in the same hotel at the same time. What are the odds of that?
I was there when they opened the body bags. My hands touched their flaky charred skin. My arms moved all on their own, lifting them up and pressing both of their blackened faces into my chest, ruining my overcoat with two ink blot type smudges. My tears were no comfort to them. They drizzled over their foreheads and were lost.
More whiskey. It’s the only thing I live for now. The mistress is getting the better of me.
Ten more unexplained disintegrators proved that this was the work of a very determined arsonist. One who found a way to make flames invisible to the naked eye. Hell is hell and no one can change it. But if you can’t see it coming for you . . .well . . . That’s another hell all together.
The only thing I had to show for was that strong pointed scent, invading my nostrils. I became ill, paranoid to be exact. I could smell the scent on me all the time and thought it would consume me from the nose down, just like fire. But it didn’t. I wished it would though. The whiskey wasn’t erasing the pain quick enough.
Nothing would. The only thing left for me was to face the bastard who burned my life down.
I had to find him.
For some reason, I stood to emphasize my determination. I tripped over the two wobbly legs that God gave me and landed on my glass, breaking it. What a pathetic mess I was. Sure, I would catch him. But first, I would need to sober up.
Thirty-six more I.F.’s popped up all over the city. Religious fanatics called it the end of the world. I called it the end of buildings. Never been much for superstitions. I’ve been more of the type that if I can see it, I know it exists. But I guess that changed over time too. Everything does.
I walk amidst the struggling chaos that this fair city has to offer. I see men and women crying for salvation, crying for an answer. An Answer. Anything. I needed one too.
For days, I shuffled around the city, wandering aimlessly, only stopping to eat and use public restrooms. My life was reduced to a choppy, sleep deprived existence.
One night, walking into an alley, puking from all the junk food I had eaten, I had found something extraordinary. I found the greasy sonofabitch.
To this day, no arson investigator is permitted to see the accused under any circumstances, even in the case of being victimized by his previous crimes. Scumbags like these get to see their lawyer first before anything. Then again, times have been a changin’. I had to bribe four people with 15 pounds of pure sugar. Can’t get the stuff anyplace else other than my medicine cabinet. I think I may have been the last person to buy some before that got outlawed as well. Not good for you, the government said. Degenerate psychopaths aren’t good for us either, Uncle Sam. Haven’t you heard?
With a heavy heart, but a victorious will, I closed the door behind me and locked it. The room was cold and blue. Fitting.
Through hundreds of man hours, we tried to find this chaos man, this ghost. And I had to be the one to stumble across him. It was too easy. You can imagine, that didn’t sit well with me.
Here was a man I could never imagine, not even in my most vivid nightmares.
The boots that dressed his feet were muddy and old, both held together by two different colors of lace. If I had to guess, I’d have to say that they were as far back as the 90’s. He wore charcoal slacks with an old fashioned rope to hold them up. A white, grease stained shirt was underneath his wrinkled long sleeve navy blue dress shirt, with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows to expose his hairy arms. His arms were folded across his chest, unmoving. This guy didn’t have the shakes as most arsonists do. That was a first. His dark hair looked as if it was infested with sewage. It was greasy, wet, full of dandruff. Thought I saw something move within that mesh of a head. There were bags under his eyes and they were bloodshot as well. There was only faint traces of stubble around his chin and his upper lip.
On the table in front of him was a mike.
I felt myself walking toward it . . . And I turned it off.
I sat down across from him, reached into my pocket and retrieved the small baggie with the personal effects we found on him. As I sighed, through my nose, I laid the three items on the scratched up table as efficiently as if I was setting up chess pieces.
Wasn’t much to go off of, to tell you the truth. Nothing but a blank cash strip, some cigarettes and two tinfoil sealed sticks of chewing gum.
I was expecting more.
I expected matches at least.
Looking down on the items, I found no comfort. There should be something more!
So I decided to add to the pile.
I pulled out my wallet and found two photos. One of Jake at 5 years old. The other of Maggie at 7. I slid them both across the table under his view, folded up my wallet and stared at him, maliciously.
After a long pause, I spoke first.
“You burned my babies.”
He looked up at me on the last word, rolled his eyes, scratched his head. “Funny, you should call them that. I figured them for adults.”
My chair screeched as I stood fast and clobbered him across the jaw. His head made a sudden jerk but he did not show pain. I didn’t like the tone of his voice. That stupid voice. That bastard of a voice. That voice which was the sound of a smoker justifying his breath.
“Strike one.” I grinned.
He licked his lips, looking bored.
“For the record, state your fuckin’ name.” I said.
“Well, seeing as how you have no identification on your person, I’ll take that as your alias. We’ll see if we can get a match in our system, won’t we?”
I blinked toward his pack.
“Have a cigarette every once in a while?”
“Like one now?”
Quickly, I raised my fist and smashed his stupid little cigarettes to grains. Using the same hand, I wiped them off of the table and out of the equation of items.
“Feels good, doesn’t it? Fucking around with someone’s head,” Riley said.
From this, I didn’t know how to respond. I admit, I was trying to scare him but I guess this side street bum was immune to intimidation no matter how far up the ladder you were.
Now I felt him, trying to run this game of mine. So I let him talk.
“Suppose you figured me for a raging psychopath. A man living on the edge. But the truth is, I’m not a psychopath. I’m not even a man with a plan. I’m just a man who stumbled into the discovery of the new century.”
“Discovery? Enlighten me, Riley.”
“Happy to. I don’t have to tell you about Larson Industrials.”
“Yeah, I know the company.”
“But do you know of their chemicals?”
“Two chemicals. On one side there is ZX13, a fine white powder used in common fertilizers. Then there is X12Z5, a green powder most commonly used as an acid for developing pictures. While running from the law, trying to look for a place to sleep, I wandered into one of Larson Industrial’s factories. It was abandoned, run down, waiting to be torn down.
“I was cold. Stupidly cold. So cold I was desperate to have heat. Sleeping on a rusted grated floor was my bottom low. So, I dragged over an empty barrel, loaded it with a quart of regular gasoline. Found the two chemicals, figured them for drugs, figured I’d burn those two, maybe get a high from the fumes, you know. Being high makes you forget who you are and just how poor you are.
“And wouldn’t you know it, fifteen minutes later, I found that the flames that warmed me up were slowly disappearing. I figured myself baked, hallucinating it. But my senses told me otherwise. I felt the heat, could feel it. But I couldn’t see it. And then, the heat got inside my head. Changed my way of thinking, yes sir.
“Imagine what it would be like if the great Chicago fire went on for weeks simply because it was never seen.”
I smashed my fist against his teeth again.
“Strike two.” I said, sweating with impatience. “And you’re on thin ice.”
This time riley drooped his lower lip out in order to catch the blood that was dripping from his nose. With his right index finger, he scooped up some of it and wiped it on the table.
“Sorry to disappoint you like this, Hurst, but I can’t feel a damn thing that you’ve been dishing out. My nerves are numb. I can’t feel anything. Is that clear?”
“Operation?” I asked.
“Birth defect. Aren’t I lucky?”
“Oh I wouldn’t think so. We caught you.”
“Only because I wanted you to.”
“I doubt that.”
“You caught me in the alley starting a normal store fire. It was only after I admitted to the I.F.’s that you decided to bring me in.”
“Think again, shithead. We have several people who could put you at the scene.”
“Yeah. I’m a sucker for watching my own work.”
“You’re going to hell.”
He jerks, his mouth froths over so fast, I have to remind myself mentally that I’m the one who’s supposed to scare him.
“I am the hell fire! I am the carnage of the streets! I brought the hell that surrounds all of us every waking moment to the surface! Is it so wrong to bring the fire that comes and devours the wicked?”
“You are nothing special. You’re not even a footnote in the book of life, my friend.”
I reached for one of the sticks of gum. Since I couldn’t bring my whiskey in here, I figured on chewing something to calm my nerves. It’s an oral fixation and one that I haven’t been able to get over.
My nerves were a jumbled mess, nagging me to say something more. But it was hard to breath when you were at the bottom.
Just as I was unwrapping the blue stick of gum, Frears moved forward, eyes wide, anxiously looking at the gum.
“Let’s join our pieces!”
“Is it alright for me to have my piece if I agree you could have that one?”
Normally, I would’ve cracked him across his stupid ass chin, but this old dog was tired and could care less. People have their habits. It would show that I’m not all stone and could give him at least a chew of his own gum, giving him one last taste of freedom to accommodate his grim departure out of this world. I knew that he would get the death penalty.
I nodded briefly.
With his dirty hands, he unfoiled the gum and sniffed it enthusiastically.
I continued to hold mine in my hand, fixated on how this creep functions. Truth be told, I forgot the piece was even in my hand.
Something didn’t feel right.
“It’s my duty to tell you,” I said, “that you’ve made a lot of people angry. You’ve ruined lives, caused billions in property damage, may have caused a collapse in the government structure. I suppose an anarchist arsonist like you eats that up for breakfast. But you could’ve done something beautiful with this discovery. Can’t you at least see that? Man always has a choice to take something rotten and breathe new life into it. Do you understand? You had a choice. Now you must live with the wrong one that you made.”
With a smile that had the sharpness of thumb tacks, he lightly folded the piece of gum into his mouth. He breathed in, exotically, one could say.
“Strike three,” He breathed heavily.
Then, with the horrified thought I had come to realize, I got up and backed myself into the wall, my hands in my pockets, my body shaking.
Before my eyes Frears was starting to change. Around his mouth I could see bubbles. They were blisters, they were popping, leaking fluids over his lips that were sizzling like bacon as he chewed so vigorously.
He was chewing on the mistress herself.
He rose from his chair, the table blackened as he placed his hands on it. And now came the insane choking laughter that rose up in his throat as his hair began to shorten.
I don’t remember scrambling for the door, but, within that instant, I kicked it open and closed it shut with a slam of my shoulder. My fumbling fingers found the lock and cranked it a good one. The man was now locked inside with his friendly invisible flames.
He came up to the glass, still laughing, eyes melting, slamming his fists up against the door.
The room blackened behind him, pulling the plague over the room. The sprinkler system kicked on, gushing its relief in the room as well as outside in the hallway. The running water ruined my hat. Through all the dripping, I could see him flail, still smiling throwing things in the room.
In no time at all, people hurled themselves around the corner like a wave and met me at the door. The poor bastards believed that they could pry me away. I firmly clenched the handle and didn’t budge. Not even when they threatened the end of my career, my pension, my life after my work life. Call me old fashioned, but I wanted to watch the bad man burn, and no one was going to take that way from me without a fight.
The sprinkler system shut off suddenly. It surprised everyone. And as everyone was looking up, I drew my gun, aimed it in a sweeping motion and yelled, “Back!”
“Goddamn it, Hurst! You are going crazy! Put it down! Let us through!” They all said.
Not a chance.
The room was still burning, and the man was still moving fast, jumping around like a chicken with it’s head cut off. I know that he could feel the pain, the heat. He was doing this song and dance for show. And what a show it was!
“What would you have done?!” He shouted at the top of his screeching lungs. “WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE DONE?! WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE DONE?! WHA WO YOU HAV DON?! WHA HAV YO A DON?! WHA HA YO DEN!?”
Try as he might, he could not stop the invisible flames from burning up his lungs. Even as he kept thrashing around, giving me a new nightmare to get over, he was getting sluggish.
I turned back to my coworkers and supervisors. Their faces, all of them, like stone.
Shivering, I found the gum I had absently placed in my pocket. To my astonishment, I wrapped it back in the tin foil before I left the room. Here she was, the slippery, sultry mistress. With all the lives she had consumed and all the hearts she had broken with the aid of this man who was misguided by her hot, loving charm.
I kept telling myself, throughout my career only for good is what you do. Turn something rotten into something productive.
Now I had the power.
But it was scary to comprehend.
Handle it with care.
Keep it safe.
What would you have done? He said.
What would I have done?