Angela hears the soulless sound of canned laughter as she creeps down the hallway. The noise is hollow, as if emanating from inside an empty tin can.
She peeks around the corner into the living room and sees pale blue light shining from an old, boxy television set. It illuminates the otherwise darkened space. A man zips back and forth across the screen, chattering into a microphone. The room’s wood-paneled walls are chipped, cracked, and broken. Thin, grey carpeting, checkered with stains of various colors and sizes, covers the floor.
Angela’s mother sits on a pleather sofa facing away from her, smoking a cigarette as she watches television. She holds the lit butt over an ancient plastic ashtray resting on the sofa’s armrest. Brown streaks cover the sofa’s off-white upholstery. Smoke fills the air like poison fog.
The unseen audience bursts into laughter once more. Angela’s mother guffaws like a hyena with lung disease before launching into a coughing fit. She doubles over, hacking up chunks of grey phlegm while ash from her cigarette peppers the armrest.
The floor lets out the slightest creak as Angela sneaks behind the sofa, but her mother doesn’t notice. The audience laughs again, and her mother lets out a raspy giggle. Angela scurries over to the kitchen doorway on the other side of the room.
Once there, she tiptoes barefoot across the cold, blue, kaleidoscope-patterned vinyl tiles on the kitchen floor. Her destination is the cabinet next to the sink. She pauses, then looks back through the doorway into the living room. She sees her mother’s silhouette, unmoving in the hazy light.
Angela holds her breath as she slowly opens the cabinet. Her eyes widen at what she sees inside. There, sitting on the bottom shelf, is a yellow matchbook with a drawing of a green giraffe on the front. She picks it up, her hand trembling, and looks at it for a moment before dropping it into her dress pocket. Then, she returns the way she came, crouch-walking behind the sofa and back out into the hallway.
From there, she hurries into the bathroom and flips the switch on the wall. The tubular fluorescent lightbulb, hanging half-detached from the ceiling, buzzes as it flickers to life. The light reveals a grimy bathtub with a scummy plastic shower curtain suspended over it. A cheap, stringy bathroom mat sits on the floor. Next to the tub is a filthy sink. A disgusting toilet sits in the corner with brown streaks running down the sides of the bowl. She closes the door and locks it behind her.
She places her hands upon the sink and looks at herself in the mirror. She runs her small fingers over the long, thin scars on her cheeks as memories flood her mind.
She recalls her stepdad yelling at her. Her fourth-grade report card lies face up on the table next to where he stands. It shows four Ds and an F. He takes his belt off and raises it above his head. The memory fades to black.
Next, she recalls standing in the street with a blanket draped across her shoulders, shivering. The charred remains of her old house loom behind her in the dark, starless night. A police officer hands her a teddy bear. The officer has a pretty smile and a long, blonde ponytail.
The officer takes her to the police station. There, Angela sits in the waiting room for hours, shifting uncomfortably in a plastic seat. She squeezes her new teddy bear, whom she names, “Thomas.”
Finally, her mother bursts through the door, her face streaked with tears. She grabs Angela by the hand and yanks her toward the exit. Angela drops Thomas onto the floor, crying out as she reaches for him, but her mother doesn’t notice or care.
“Let’s go, Angie,” she says. “We’re leaving.”
“Where’s daddy?” Angela says, whimpering.
“Daddy’s… daddy’s gone.”
“Gone? Gone where?”
Her mother starts to respond, but her voice catches in her throat. Then she mutters something to herself. Angela hears her use a swear word, then say, “I hope he’s still burning when he gets to Hell.”
The bathroom light’s buzzing abruptly grows louder, jolting Angela back to the present. Slowly, she reaches into her pocket and pulls out the matchbook. She opens it, ever so carefully, and looks at the perfectly organized row of matches therein. She pulls one out and holds it up, admiring its grainy wooden texture and its red, lollipop-like head. She turns the matchbook over in her fingers so that the lighting strip faces up. Then, she scrapes the match across the strip and watches in awe as it ignites.
She holds the lit match under her nose, breathing in its sulfurous fumes, her eyes fixated upon the dancing flame. Her pupils dilate, swallowing her light-blue irises almost completely. Her head throbs, and her skin tingles all over. Adrenaline spiked with serotonin surges through her brain. It makes her feel good; it makes her feel high. From the flame, she hears a tiny, almost inaudible whisper, “Burn… burn… burn…” Then, it goes out.
She drops the used matchstick into the toilet, then pulls out another one. She strikes the second match and it ignites. Enthralled by the flame, she again hears the whispering voice, “Burn… burn… burn…” The match goes out, and she drops it into the toilet as well.
She reaches for a third matchstick, then strikes it and holds it up in front of her. The throbbing in her head becomes a thudding in her temples. Her face feels numb. A pleasurable sensation cascades down her spine. The voice from the flame speaks louder, faster, and in a more commanding tone. “Burn. Burn. Burn.”
Someone pounds on the bathroom door. Angela flinches, dropping the lit match onto the floor. Her mother’s muffled voice comes from under the door. “Young lady, are you playing with matches again?” Angela flushes the toilet and says, “No, mommy.”
The doorknob rattles. Her mom says, “Angela, I can smell the smoke. Unlock this door right now!”
Angela starts to protest, but then notices that the match has ignited the bathroom mat. The flames grow until they reach above the tub. The bottom of the shower curtain melts. Scorch marks form on the sides of the tub and the sink.
Angela reaches for the doorknob, panicking, but forgets to unlock it. Unable to open the door, she screams. “Help me, mommy! Help, it’s burning! Help!”
As the flame grows, its voice intensifies into a raspy, demanding shout. “Burn! Burn! Burn!”
* * *
Paula’s purple pumps click-clack as she marches confidently across the parking lot’s pitted blacktop. She wears a grey suit and has a brown purse hanging from her shoulder.
Striding beside her is a man wearing black khakis and a white, short-sleeved, button-up shirt. A firefighter’s cross patch is sewn onto the left shoulder. A single word appears in block letters inside each of the cross’s arms. When read clockwise, they form the phrase, “PEPPAJAY KANSAS FIRE DEPARTMENT.” A nametag above the left breast pocket says, “Sgt. R. Mullens.”
The two approach an imposing sandstone skyscraper with gothic-style architecture. A short flight of long, wide stairs leads from the parking lot to the edifice’s double-doored entrance. On either side sit dark bronze statues of lions sitting like sphinxes. Above the doors in large bronze letters are the words, “Peppajay City Hall.”
They pass through a metal detector operated by an uncommunicative security guard. Then they transverse the building’s ornate, if not intimidating lobby. Their footsteps echo loudly off of the marble floors, walls, and ceilings.
They walk past administrative offices and waiting rooms filled with bored, uncomfortable-looking people. Finally, they arrive at a simple wooden door. The man knocks twice, then opens it and walks through the doorway. Paula follows him inside.
They enter an office where a woman in a brown suit sits behind a massive wooden desk. Two men sit in front of it on either side. One wears a grey overcoat over a black suit with a matching grey fedora. The other wears a uniform like that of Paula’s companion, though he’s much older and has a thick, white mustache.
“Robert, you’re here,” the woman says as they enter, “and I see you’ve brought our guest.”
“Hello, chief,” Robert says. “Thank you for meeting with us today. It looks like everyone’s here, so let me introduce you all to Dr. Paula Jomeri, PhD.”
Paula smiles and nods, making brief eye contact with everyone in the group.
Robert looks at Paula and says, “Dr. Jomeri, the man who looks like a cop is Detective Jerome Tusk from the Peppajay Police Department. The slightly, well… ok, much older version of me sitting next to him is Captain Patrick O’Malley. He’s a retired firefighter who works with us as a consultant. Sitting behind the big desk like a boss, because she is the boss, is Fire Chief Debra Prior.”
They exchange pleasantries, then Robert once more addresses the group. “As we’ve discussed, Dr. Jomeri is–”
“Please, call me Paula,” she says, interrupting him.
“Alright, Paula is one of the leading authorities on fire science and arsonist psychology. She has helped solve dozens of high-profile arson cases all over the country. If anyone can help us with our problem, it’s her.”
The others look Paula up and down, sizing her up. Debra and Jerome nod in approval. Patrick crosses his arms and furrows his bushy grey eyebrows.
“Well then, Paula,” Jerome says with a smirk. “Let me be the first to welcome you to Peppajay, The Most Flammable City in the U.S.”
Patrick rolls his eyes. Robert scoffs. Debra, shooting Jerome a look of disapproval, sighs and opens her mouth to speak.
“What Jerry means to say, Paula, is that we do indeed have a fire problem here in Peppajay. Specifically, we have a serial arsonist who has burned down several buildings already. Several people have died, and people will keep dying unless we do something to put him out of commission. Of course, we’re assuming it’s a ‘him’ because the vast majority of arsonists are men, but the truth is that it could be anyone.”
With a solemn nod, Paula says, “I’ll help however I can.”
* * *
A man flicks a lighter in the darkness. The flame from the red plastic lighter reflects in his eyes as he stares down at it, captivated. Its dull glow reveals mops and brooms surrounding him inside the utility closet. He raises the object in his other hand up to the flame. The knife’s blade glints in the light.
He removes his thumb from the lighter’s button and the flame disappears. Then he slides the lighter and the knife into his pockets. He reaches for the doorknob through the darkness and opens the door.
He slithers through the doorway into a long, dark, linoleum-tiled hallway. Dim blue lights overhead provide scant illumination. He quietly closes the door behind him, then makes his way down the hall. At the end are a pair of metal double doors with horizontal handlebars. Each door has a rectangular window running down the middle with wire mesh embedded in the glass.
The man reaches into his pocket and pulls out a key. He inserts it into a keyhole in the door on the right, then turns it. The door unlocks with a loud click that echoes down the hall. He stands there for a moment, listening, then pushes the handlebar down. The door opens with a metallic creak.
He steps through the doorway into a large, concrete-walled garage. Moonlight spills in through the windows on two large bay doors on one side of the room. Parked in front of each door is a full-sized fire engine. He approaches one of them as he pulls the knife out of his pocket.
* * *
“Mommy, help me!”
A young girl screams as she leans out of the second-story window of a house engulfed in flames. Black smoke billows out all around her and up into the sky. Tears run down her soot-streaked face as she lets out a pained, raspy cough. Sirens sound in the distance.
“Jump, baby! Jump!” the girl’s mother says, holding out her arms as she stands beneath the window.
“I can’t! I’m scared,” the girl says, wheezing.
The mother eyes the house’s front door which is now a wall of flame. She starts toward it, but the intense heat forces her to back away.
Two fire engines pull up on the street, sirens screaming, lights ablaze. The sirens cut off as firemen pile out and begin unfurling firehoses from their trucks. But one fireman, upon disembarking, stops and stares at the fire. Upon his face is a look of slack-jawed awe.
“Randy, get over here and help us!” says the fire captain. The fireman shakes his head as if snapping out of a trance. Then he rushes over and joins in assisting his colleagues.
Once the firehose teams are in position, the captain gives the order to turn the water on. Water begins to flow through the hoses, but then it sprays out of long slits cut into the sides. Only a small amount trickles from the nozzles. The hoses are useless.
The girl screams and ducks back inside the house. “It burns, it burns!” she says. “Mommy, please help me!” Then her voice falls silent, and her mother lets out a chilling shriek.
“My baby! She’s gonna die! I’ve got to save her!”
Before anyone can react, the mother runs into the house and disappears inside the inferno. A moment later, she lets out a long, agonized wail. Then her voice falls silent as well.
* * *
“Based on the burn patterns and the presence of accelerant, there’s no doubt this is arson,” Paula says. “We also found evidence of a time-delay ignition trigger. This gave the arsonist plenty of time to be someplace else when the fire started.”
Paula looks at Jerome to see his reaction to her assessment. He nods, looking grimly at the charred remains of the house’s front porch. Out in the street, coroners load two body bags, one large and one small, into the back of a black SUV.
“That’s what I thought,” Jerome says.
“Do you already have a suspect in mind?”
He gives her a cynical smirk. “Yeah, you could say that. Some of the firefighters said that when they got here, one of their own started acting strange. They said he wouldn’t stop staring at the fire. They also said he’d never acted that way while fighting other fires before.”
Paula says, “Maybe he knew the people who lived here, or the house had some kind of special meaning to him.”
“…maybe…,” Jerome says, doubting. “Or maybe it was this fire in particular that was special to him.”
“How do you mean?”
“Maybe this fire-man is really a fire-bug in disguise, and he’s finally showing his true colors. Our guys have already picked him up for questioning. He has been cooperating so far and hasn’t asked for a lawyer, but we haven’t said anything about arson yet, either. We also haven’t pressed him on who might’ve sabotaged the hoses. They’re all waiting for us down at the precinct. Care to join?”
“Uh, would that be appropriate?” Paula says, taken aback. “I’m not a police officer.”
“We’ve already secured a special clearance for you. This gives you the ability to be present during all phases of the investigation. I think it would be helpful for you to be there when I question him. In fact, I insist.”
* * *
Paula looks through the observation room’s one-way mirror. She sees a stout, bearded man sitting by himself in the interview room on the other side of the glass. A pack of cigarettes rests on the table before him next to an ashtray and a red, plastic lighter. He pulls a cigarette of the pack and puts it into his mouth, then picks up the lighter and flicks it. He stares at the flame for several moments as if transfixed, then lights the cigarette and takes a puff.
“Randal Sidney Peterson, age 23,” Jerome says, standing next to Paula in the observation room. “Born and raised here in Peppajay. He grew up in poverty and is the only child of a single mother. He went to East High School where he had a juvenile arrest for setting a small fire inside the boy’s bathroom. He managed to avoid expulsion by agreeing to pay for the damage and doing 100 hours of community service.
“Later, he enrolled at Peppajay Community College. There, he studied… get this… fire science, but he dropped out after two semesters. He spent the next few years working odd jobs without any formal employment. During that time, he tried and failed to pass the firefighter qualification test three years in a row. He passed after a fourth try, but only because they lowered the standards that year due to a lack of viable candidates.
“We don’t have enough evidence to charge him with a crime yet. That means he could leave at any time and maybe disappear forever. Is there anything I should say or do when I go in there to talk to him about the arson that’ll help us nail him down?”
Paula thinks for a moment, then says, “The time-delay ignition trigger we recovered at the scene was a sophisticated mechanism. Most amateurs use simple things like a firecracker fuse or a lit cigarette. But in this case, it was more like a small machine made of gears and other small parts presumably from a watch. To make it work, he would’ve needed to use watch oil, and a lot of it.”
“So?” Jerome says.
“Watch oil is unique in how long it stays in the skin after being absorbed. If you get any on your fingers, it’ll rub off on everything you touch for up to a week.”
Paula turns her head to look at Randy. He puffs on his cigarette while staring off into space, expressionless.
She continues. “Go in there and tell him you need to change interview rooms to another one down the hall. But before he leaves, tell him he can’t smoke in the hall and ask him to put his cigarette out in the ashtray.
“When you’re both gone, I’ll come in and grab the cigarette butt. Then, I’ll take it to the department’s crime lab. There, I’ll test it for traces of hydrogenated silicone, the base material used in watch oil. If it’s present, then we can say he probably made the trigger device. Do you think that would be enough arrest him?”
Jerome takes a deep breath. “Yes, I think that would be enough,” he says, “and then we could get a warrant to search his home for more evidence.”
“Great, let’s do it.”
* * *
Jerome turns the key and the deadbolt disengages. Then he opens the apartment door and walks inside. Paula follows close behind.
“Your suggestion sure did the trick,” Jerome says. “The look on his face when I told him he was under arrest was priceless. And that was the fastest a judge has ever granted me a search warrant in my entire career.”
“Glad to hear it,” Paula says. “Let’s hope we find something we can use to put him away for good.”
They make their way down a dingy hallway, past a dusty kitchenette. The hall opens into a small living room furnished with only a cheap futon, a scuffed flat screen t.v. sitting on the floor, and a bean bag chair.
They enter the bedroom and see a bare mattress covered with dirty blankets. Sitting in the corner of the room is a wooden stool with pieces of burned debris arranged on top of it. They include a scorched teddy bear, a singed photo album, and a half-melted gold necklace. Used, unlit candles surround the stool on the hardwood floor. Framed newspaper clippings adorn the walls on either side of it.
Approaching the bizarre display, Paula scans the headlines from the clippings. One says, “Peppajay Historical Theater Burns, Police Suspect Arson.” Another one says, “3 Hurt in Suspicious Office Fire Downtown.” Another says, “Warehouse Conflagration Claims Several Lives.”
Lying on the stool as a centerpiece is a book with a worn leather binding. The title appears in gold embossed letters on the cover. “The Fear and the Flame: The Story of the Peppajay Massacre of 1863, by Anna Tayiah.” A knife and a key lie next to each other on top of the book. Sitting beside the display along the wall is a small workbench. It’s littered with watch parts and tools as well as bottles of Moebius brand watch oil.
Paula picks up the photo album and opens it. In one picture, a little girl sits at a picnic table in front of a white-frosted cake, smiling. On top of the cake is a lit candle shaped like the number 6. Another picture shows the girl with a woman who’s presumably her mother. In it, they’re wearing colorful swimsuits, laughing as they jump over a small wave at the beach. The water is crystal clear in the bright sunshine, and the sky is a deep, rich blue.
Paula shows the pictures to Jerome and says, “Do you recognize these people?” With a grim nod, he says, “They’re the victims from the fire. The sick bastard must’ve gone in and grabbed this stuff to keep as trophies while no one was looking.”
Scowling, Paula says, “And I bet that’s the knife he used to slice up the firehoses and the key he used to get into the garage. Looks like this is our guy.”
A quiet buzzing sound comes Jerome’s coat pocket. He pulls his phone out and answers it.
“Yeah?” he says.
A look of dismay crosses his face. “What? How could that have happened? Ok, hold on. We’re on our way back now.”
He curses as he hangs up, then slides the phone back into his pocket.
“What happened?” Paula says, concerned.
“Randy Peterson just committed suicide in his jail cell. He somehow managed to smuggle in some shoelaces, then used them to hang himself from the corner of his bed.”
Paula shrugs and says, “Oh well, I guess that means case closed, right?”
Jerome smiles sadly as he slowly shakes his head.
“What do you mean? We caught the bad guy. That’s why you brought me here, right?”
Jerome looks at her with a mix of pity and amusement, then says, “Yes and no.”
* * *
A young man presses the clothes iron down onto the white apron draped across the ironing board. The iron hisses as steam wafts out from beneath it.
“Hey Nick, getting ready for work?”
Nick looks up from the ironing board and sees his roommate standing in the doorway. He has a white apron tied around his waist like the one Nick is ironing. He also wears black dress pants and shoes, a black dress shirt, and a white tie. A similar outfit hangs from a hanger on the doorknob.
“Yeah, my shift starts at 5:00,” Nick says. “What about you, Tim?”
“I need to be in at 4:00,” Tim says. “Hopefully they won’t triple-seat me right when I walk through the door like last time.”
Nick chuckles. “Tim,” he says, “you’re the only food server I know who complains about getting too many tables. Most of us don’t get nearly enough. Maybe you should share some with the rest of us.”
Tim smirks and says, “What can I say? It’s not my fault I have so many regulars who ask for me by name. Everybody knows the real reason people come to eat at Carrabini’s isn’t the food, it’s the Tim Show.”
Nick laughs and shakes his head. “The ‘Tim Show?’ You mean those goofy faces and silly voices you use to make people laugh while you’re taking their orders?”
Tim tilts his head to the side with a one-shouldered shrug. “If you can make someone laugh, you can make them do anything. That’s why I get so many more tables and such bigger tips than you. Every. Single. Night.”
Nick smiles ironically and says, “You’re probably right.”
“And,” Tim says, crossing his arms and raising his eyebrows, “that’s also why I get way more girls than you.”
“Well, it couldn’t be because of your looks. That’s for sure.”
Tim rolls his eyes and says, “Whatever dude. I have go. See you at the restaurant.”
Tim turns and walks away. Nick hears the sound of their apartment door as it opens and then closes. Silence fills the air as he places the iron upright on the ironing board.
He licks his finger, then touches it to iron’s hot underside. Searing pain shoots through his fingertip, and pleasure chemicals flood his brain. The sound of his skin sizzling is like someone whispering into his ear, saying “Burn… burn… burn…”
He retracts his bright red fingertip, then, breathing heavily, rolls up his shirtsleeve. Several V-shaped burn scars cover the underside of his forearm. He licks a patch of unburned skin between the scars, coating the area with saliva.
Hands trembling, he picks up the iron and, after a moment of hesitation, presses it down onto his wet arm flesh. The iron sizzles loudly and his arm trembles, but he continues pressing. Tears stream down his face and the smell of burning meat fills the air. The voice says, in a commanding tone, “Burn. Burn. Burn.”
Nick hisses in ecstasy. “Yesss…” he says.
* * *
Debra’s office door flies open, slamming against the wall as Paula storms into the room. Jerome rushes in behind her, holding his fedora on his head. Debra, who was typing on a laptop at her desk, jumps at the sound of the intrusion. “Wha-?” she starts to say, but Paula interrupts her.
“You need to tell me just what is going on here. Right now!” she says, putting her hands on her hips.
Stunned, Debra shakes her head and stammers. “I… uh… well… I… uh…
“We caught the bad guy, didn’t we Jerome?” Paula says, looking at him over her shoulder.
Jerome takes his hat off his head and holds it in front of his abdomen. “Yes, Paula. We did,” he says, timidly.
“Dr. Jomeri,” Paula says.
“Yes… Dr. Jomeri. We did.”
“Well, then what the hell am I still doing here?” she says, shrugging as she turns to face Debra. “Jerome says there’s still more work to be done, but he won’t say why or what it is. Care to explain?”
Debra takes a deep breath, then opens her mouth to speak. “Well, the thing is…”
The phone on her desk rings. She glances at the caller ID, then her eyes open wide.
Holding up an urgent finger, she grabs the handset and presses it to her ear. “Chief Prior,” she says.
After pausing to listen for a moment, she closes her eyes and slumps her shoulders. Leaning forward, she places her elbow on the desk and rests her head upon her hand. She squeezes her temples with her thumb and forefinger as she says, “Thank you for letting me know,” then hangs up.
“Who was that?” Paula says.
Debra meets her gaze and says, “There’s another fire happening right now. It’s at Carrabini’s Restaurant on the south side of town. There are people trapped inside. We have to go there. Now.”
A red SUV with the words “FIRE CHIEF” stenciled on the door panels screeches to a halt outside a brick building enveloped in fire. The monstrous flames illuminate the nighttime darkness like a bonfire in the countryside. A tower of black smoke rises from it into the sky above.
Red and blue emergency lights from fire engines and police cars flash all around the parking lot. Firefighters spray the building with their hoses, but the flames refuse to die down. A crowd of worried-looking people stands behind a police barricade at the edge of the parking lot. Muffled screams and cries for help emanate from inside the building.
Debra leaps out of the driver’s seat of the SUV. Paula and Jerome get out as well and follow behind her. They all hurry over to where Robert and Patrick stand near one of the fire trucks.
“What’s the situation?” Debra says, breathless.
Patrick says, “The fire began as the dinner rush started to pick up. There was a big crowd tonight because of a country music concert a few blocks away.”
Robert says, “All the building’s entrances and exits are totally engulfed in flame. This is unusual given that most restaurant fires start in the kitchen and grow from there. But this one seems to have started around the edge of the building and worked inward. The survivors inside are probably pressed together in the middle of the dining area. They’re surrounded and have no way out.”
“It’s gotta be arson,” Paula says. “Fire simply doesn’t behave that way without human guidance.” The others look at her and nod in unison. Then she says, “How can we help the people inside?”
Before anyone can answer, they see a young man approaching them from the direction of the building. He wears a black dress shirt with matching shoes and pants with a white tie and a white apron tied around his waist. Soot stains cover his apron and tie.
“Hey, you!” Jerome says, pointing at him. “How’d you get past the barricade? You need to vacate the area, immediately.”
The man doesn’t respond. Instead, he continues walking toward them as the building burns behind him in the background.
“This is your last warning,” Jerome says, bellowing in a well-practiced, authoritative baritone. “Leave now or go to jail.”
The man continues toward them, unflinching. As he draws near, they see that most of his hair has burned away. His scalp looks red and raw, and blood runs down his face. His shirt sleeve is torn, revealing V-shaped burn scars on the underside of his forearm. He looks like he should be in excruciating pain, yet his demeanor seems relaxed, even amused. He walks up to Debra with a hideous grin upon his face.
“Hello, Chief Prior,” he says. “Thank you for coming.”
“Do… do I know you?” she says.
“No,” he says, his smile widening. “But I know you.” He chortles like a vampire who’s about to feast on the blood of his latest victim. Then he looks at Paula and says, “And now I know you, too.”
He stands there, smiling, completely still like a living statue for several moments. No one knows what to say or do. Then, he takes one giant step backward, then another, and another. He continues until he’s within a few meters of the entrance to the burning building. He stares Paula down with a sick smile on his face the entire time.
She and the others watch in horror as he walks backwards into the flames. He continues smiling as the fire consumes his body, then he disappears from view without a sound.
Paula turns to Debra and says, “You need to tell me what the hell is going on in this town.”
Debra looks at her and nods, saying, “Alright, I will.”
* * *
Jerome leans back in the conference room chair with his hands behind his head. “It’s like this, Pau- I mean, Dr. Jomeri. What we have is something I like to call a ‘Pyro Problem.’ Peppajay has more fires, more arson fires, per capita than any other city in the country.”
“By far,” Robert says.
“And,” Patrick says, “it has been that way for a long time.”
Debra says, “It’s true, serial arsonists have plagued Peppajay for more than a year. As soon as we stop one of them, another one starts up soon thereafter. The last two arsonists are dead, but we’re sure another one will make himself known soon.”
Paula’s face twists into a look of confusion. “But… why?” she says, shaking her head.
No one says anything for several moments. Finally, Robert says, “That’s where you come in, Paula.”
“Yes, that’s why you’re here,” Jerome says. “I wanted to tell you before, but it was more complicated than I could explain. We knew we had a problem with arsonists, but we didn’t realize their activities followed a pattern until just recently. That’s when we contacted you, because of your expertise in arsonist psychology.”
Paula looks at him with concern as he continues. “After we became certain that Randy the firefighter was an arsonist, we’d hoped to question him to learn what drives him and all the others. We were hoping to find a way to put an end to the pattern permanently, but as you can tell, that didn’t happen.”
Paula says, “How many other serial arsonists were there before Randy?”
“Four,” Jerome says. “And before you ask, they all killed themselves before we could question them, too. Randy was supposed to be on suicide watch as soon as we arrested him, but he found a way to kill himself anyway. Then, as you know, this most recent one killed himself as well.”
“Right in front of us,” Robert says. “That has never happened before. It was like he was… mocking us, and mocking you, specifically, Paula. The way he stared at you; it was like he knew why you were there. He set the fire, then killed himself just to make a point, like he had no other purpose in life.”
Patrick says, “Regardless, this puts us in an awkward situation because now we need to wait for the next arsonist to become active. That means more people will have to die before we can even hope to learn anything new.” He lets out a frustrated sigh and shakes his head. Everyone looks down dejectedly.
Paula says, “What about the author of that book we found at that weird shrine inside Randy’s apartment? What was her name?”
The others exchange glances. Jerome says, “Anna Tayiah is a local historian and the head librarian at the Peppajay City Library. This isn’t the first time her name has popped up during our arson investigations. We’ve talked to her a few times, but never learned anything useful.”
Overcome with frustration, Paula snaps. “Well, maybe you weren’t asking her the right questions.”
Jerome narrows his eyes and scowls at her. “May-be…,” he says, deliberately pausing in the middle of the word. “…Paula.”
* * *
“Peppajay has always had a history of tragic fires ever since European settlers founded it in the 1800’s,” the woman says. She gazes at Paula from behind her thick-lensed, wire-rimmed spectacles as they sit across from each other at the desk. “In fact, the word ‘Peppajay’ itself is a bastardized anglicization of the Sioux word for ‘fire’ in the Kaw dialect, ‘ppéǰe.’ But, I’m not sure how this relates to the current problem of serial arsonists trying to burn the whole city down.”
Paula glances around, noting the spartan décor of Anna Tayiah’s office inside the library. Besides the desk, two chairs, and Anna’s laptop, there’s nothing else inside the small, nondescript room.
Paula says, “Anna, I came to you because the police found your book among the belongings of one of the arsonists before he killed himself. We want to know what you think that means, if anything. We’re trying to gain an understanding of what motivates them.”
“I see,” Anna says in flat, emotionless voice. “I wrote that book so that no one would forget the ‘Peppajay Massacre of 1863.’ It happened when the settlers murdered scores of local Native people, many of whom were my ancestors. The Massacre stemmed from an earlier incident called the ‘Peppajay Inferno.’ That was when a gigantic fire destroyed most of the Peppajay settlement, killing many people.
“The settlers believed a nearby Kaw tribe was responsible for the Inferno. The Massacre was retaliation; they called it ‘frontier justice.’”
Anna curls her upper lip in disgust. Her expression livens as she speaks, and her eyes burn with fiery intensity. “They ambushed the Natives while they slept, catching them completely off guard. Only a few members of the tribe survived.”
Paula responds with a slow, sober nod of comprehension as Anna continues. “There was never any evidence that the Kaw or any other Native people had anything to do with the fire. And the reality is that it could’ve started any number of ways. For example, it could’ve been because of a lightning strike in a dry field. Or, it could’ve been from a cook fire that got out of control, or even a carelessly discarded cigar.”
“But what made the fire so deadly?” Paula says. “I read in your book that a single fire destroyed most of the buildings in Peppajay and killed the majority of its inhabitants. How’s that even possible?”
Anna shrugs and says, “The best guess is that high winds, maybe a microburst or a tornado, blew the fire everywhere soon after it began. This makes sense because it was tornado season at the time, and Peppajay is right in the middle of Tornado Alley. The flames would’ve blanketed the entire settlement all at once. Furthermore, the Inferno happened on a Sunday, so most people were in church when it started. By the time they realized the building was on fire, it was already too late.”
“But, do you believe that’s what actually happened?” Paula says.
Anna stares at her for several seconds, then says, “No.”
Anna takes a deep breath as she leans back in her chair and stares at the ceiling. She sits like that for so long that Paula thinks she might’ve fallen asleep. Finally, she leans forward with her eyebrow raised.
She says, “In the 19th century, the European settlers and the Natives often clashed over territory. Many people died, and many settlements were destroyed. But…”
She pauses for several moments, then continues.
“…there’s a reason why the Peppajay settlement was able to survive and thrive during this time, both before and after the Inferno. It’s also the reason why no Native person could’ve been responsible for the fire. That reason is because local Native people wouldn’t set foot anywhere near Peppajay. Thus, they left the settlement alone to grow as it may. And that was because…” Anna pauses once more.
Paula leans forward so far that she almost falls out of her chair. She recovers and says, “Because?”
Anna gives her a hard look for several more seconds. Then, she says, “Because Natives back then believed that an angry fire spirit haunted the land. They believed the spirit could enter people’s minds and make them burn each other alive. Thus, they kept their distance, not wanting to invoke the spirit’s wrath.”
* * *
“Jerome, it’s Paula. Have you got a minute?”
Paula holds her phone up to her ear as she rushes out of the Peppajay City Library.
“Anything you want, Paula,” he says. She detects an icy chill in his voice.
She sighs and says, “I need the police department’s files on all the arsonists since the beginning of the ‘Pyro Problem.’ Bring them to the conference room in city hall. Can you do that?”
Jerome pauses as if debating in his mind how to respond. Finally, he says, flatly, “Your wish is my command.”
* * *
“I’m convinced that there’s an intelligence behind Peppajay’s serial arsonist problem,” Paula says. “There’s some kind of outside force that’s acting upon people, pushing them into becoming arsonists.”
She stands at one end of the conference room like a professor delivering a lecture. Jerome, Debra, Robert, and Patrick sit around the table, giving her odd looks as she speaks.
Undaunted, she continues. “After reviewing the police files on all the serial arsonists, I recognized a pattern. The more people who die during one arsonist’s spree, the less time passes before another one starts a new spree. Likewise, the fewer people who die, the longer the interval until another one begins.”
Everyone stares at her blankly. No one responds.
“Don’t you see? Something is feeding off the energy produced by these deadly fires. The more people who die, the more energy it has available to turn someone else into an arsonist as well. The fewer people that die, the less energy it has and thus the longer it takes to turn someone into an arsonist.”
No one speaks for a long time. Finally, Jerome says, “That sounds fucking crazy.”
“No, wait,” Debra says, “Let’s hear her out.”
Jerome looks at Debra with a surprised expression, then glances over at Patrick and Robert. They look back at him, expressionless. He lowers his head and mutters under his breath. “This is bullshit.”
“Patrick,” Paula says, “How many people died in the restaurant fire?”
“Twelve,” he says, matter-of-factly.
“And how many total people did Randy Peterson kill before we captured him?”
Robert answers this time. “Eight.”
“How much time elapsed between when Randy’s spree ended and when the restaurant fire occurred?”
“About four days,” Debra says.
“That means we probably have about three days before the next arsonist becomes active, maybe less.”
“So what?” Jerome says angrily. “Even if what you’re saying is true, and I highly doubt that it is, we have no way to identify this ‘arsonist-to-be.’ Even if we did, there’d be nothing we could do about it because you can’t arrest someone for something they haven’t done.”
“I know it’s not the ideal situation,” Paula says.
“But,” Paula says, “I believe that if we detain the ‘arsonist-to-be’ long enough, the entity will run out of energy. Then, there won’t be a ‘Pyro Problem’ in Peppajay anymore, or ever again.”
Jerome leaps up out of his chair with such force that it falls over behind him. “I’m not gonna sit here and listen to any more of this crazy talk!” he says, balling his hands into fists at his sides. “We brought this ‘scientist’ here to help us fix a real problem where real people are dying. And what does she give us? Witchcraft! Hocus pocus! Mumbo jumbo! It doesn’t make any sense!”
His body trembles as he shakes his head in disgust. “Maybe you people don’t see what’s going on here, but I do.” He jabs his finger toward Paula, saying, “She has no idea what she’s doing, and she just doesn’t want to admit it.”
He slowly turns his head to glare at her, his eyes narrowed into icy slits. “Isn’t that right?” he says, growling.
“Jerome,” Debra says. “Get out of here and go cool off.”
“Whatever,” he says. Then, he turns on his heel and stomps toward the exit. As he opens the door, he looks back at them over his shoulder. “If this comes back to bite me in the ass,” he says, “I’m taking you all down with me.”
“Jerome!” Debra says.
Without responding, he marches through the doorway and slams the door behind him. Patrick and Robert exchange glances. Patrick shakes his head, and Robert raises his eyebrows.
“Well, that’s too bad,” Robert says, sarcastically.
Patrick looks at Paula and says, “Forget about him.”
Debra says, “What are the next steps, Paula?”
Paula gives them all a slight bow, then continues. “All the serial arsonists to date share the same characteristics. First, they were all adolescents or young adults. Second, they all came from single-parent homes and grew up in poverty. And finally, they all displayed fire-starting tendencies at an early age.”
Debra holds her hand up. “Hold on,” she says, “A lot of kids play with matches, and a lot of those kids come from troubled homes. It doesn’t mean they’re all going to become pyromaniacs.”
“You’re right,” Paula says. “But what I’m saying is that this… entity chooses victims from among people in Peppajay who share these traits. We need to find everyone who fits this description, then put them someplace where they can’t start any fires. Once enough time has passed, I believe the entity will die.”
“By starving to death?” Patrick says.
“How many people in town fit this description?” Robert says, “And how long do we need to detain them for?”
“Based on my research of public records, there are 11 individuals who fit the profile. And the longest interval between arson sprees was one week. My best guess is that we’d need to keep them isolated for at least double that amount of time.”
“Good luck,” Patrick says derisively. “I’m afraid our friend Jerry, despite being a complete asshole a moment ago, did have a point. We can’t detain people for something they haven’t done, and we definitely can’t do it for as long as two weeks.”
Robert says, “What if they come willingly?”
“What do you mean?” Debra says.
“My wife works at a clinical research trial company that tests new drugs on human subjects. They basically pay people to come stay at their medical facility and be human guinea pigs. The stays can be as long as a few hours, a few days, and even a few weeks.”
“Go on,” Debra says.
“Why don’t we create our own paid clinical trial and reach out to the people who fit the profile? We’ll tell them we’re testing a new drug and we’re looking for volunteers to come stay at the facility for a couple weeks. All we have to do is make sure the money’s so good, they can’t refuse. We’ll also tell them that the drug we’re testing is harmless and fun, like cannabis.”
Patrick snorts and shakes his head. “Really? Cannabis? Harmless and fun?”
Robert shrugs. “Well, it doesn’t have to be that, but you get my point. We can tell the research company to just give them placebo pills. Those are pills filled with harmless substances like starch or sugar.”
“I like the idea,” Paula says. “But most people can’t drop everything to spend two weeks away from their responsibilities on a whim, even if there’s money involved.”
Debra says, “We’re out of options. We have to give it a try. The fire department’s budget still has some unallocated funding available. We can use it to compensate participants and pay the research facility. Robert, do you think your wife’s company would be able to accept an emergency client today, like right now?”
Robert thinks for a moment, then says, “…yes. Yes, I do.”
“Great, then it’s settled,” Debra says, rising from her chair. “Paula, you and Robert put together a scope of work for our ‘study’ and engage Robert’s wife’s company to manage it. Patrick, you and I will start reaching out to ‘participants’ to get them to come to the facility for the study.”
“Alright,” the others say in unison.
“Ok,” Debra says. “Let’s get to work.”
* * *
Robert looks up at Paula from the clipboard he holds in his hands. “We managed to convince eight participants to join the study so far,” he says. “They’re already here in the facility as we speak.”
They stand inside a white-walled, beige-tiled break room. Plastic chairs surround metal tables on either side of the room. A soft drink vending machine stands against the wall beside a poster with the Hippocratic Oath printed upon it. The words, “First, do no harm,” appear at the top of the poster in large, cursive letters. A doctor and a nurse walk past the waiting room’s open doorway. The nurse glances inside as they pass by.
“What about the others?” Paula says.
“One, Joe Harden, is currently serving six months in the Peppajay County Jail for a series of petty thefts. We contacted the warden and told him to keep Mr. Harden away from anything flammable. He seemed to understand.
“Another, Max Johnson, has apparently moved out of state. His phone number is disconnected, and the address we have for him is an abandoned rental property. He’s not employed anywhere in town and hasn’t paid city taxes in three years.”
“Let’s hope he moved away for work or family and didn’t drop off the grid for some other reason.”
“Definitely. The last one we haven’t contacted yet is a 16-year-old girl named Angela Vickers. She’s the only child of Mary Vickers, a divorced, widowed single mother.”
“Divorced and widowed?”
“Yes, Mary Vickers divorced Angela’s father when Angela was still an infant. She remarried less than a year later. Her second husband died in a house fire when Angela was nine years old. Police suspected Mary of murder and arson, but never pressed charges due to a lack of evidence. We called their home number several times but there was no answer. After we called the last time, however, someone answered and then immediately hung up. We haven’t had a chance to send anyone out to their address yet. They live way out in the boonies.”
“Well, it sounds like someone is there, at least, even if they’re not taking any calls. We should go there now and see if we can talk to Angela or her mom. We’re running out of time.”
* * *
Paula walks down the narrow dirt path leading up to the door of the small, ramshackle cottage. Robert follows close behind. The dilapidated house is set far back into the woods. They drove past it three times before realizing it was there.
As they approach, they see that the grass in the home’s small front yard is long and wild and overgrown with weeds. Pieces of siding have fallen off the exterior, revealing pink foam insulation boards underneath. Dislodged shingles accumulate in the bent, rusty gutters hanging off the side of the roof. One of the front windows is shattered, and glass litters the ground beneath it.
“I don’t know about this,” Robert says.
“I agree, but we have to check,” Paula says.
As they come closer, they detect a putrid, coppery aroma in the air.
“What is that smell?” Paula says, gagging.
“I don’t know,” Robert says, gagging as well. “It smells like burned metal and… barbecue.”
They reach the small, cracked concrete slab that serves as the house’s front porch. Paula knocks on the flimsy, warped wooden front door. It opens a crack.
“Huh? The door wasn’t even closed,” she says. Then, she pushes it open a few more inches.
“What’re you doing?” Robert says. “We can’t just barge into someone’s home.”
“I know, but this is a matter of life and death.”
Paula pushes the door all the way open and steps inside.
The smell hits her like a brick in the face. The sickening aroma is immensely stronger inside the house. She doubles over, convulsing as if punched in the stomach. Robert walks in behind her and quickly follows suit. He leans back out the doorway and vomits into the yard.
Once they recover, they look around and see that they’re inside a dirty, darkened living room. Blankets cover the windows. Stains checker the thin grey carpet. A pleather sofa with brown-streaked, off-white upholstery sits in front of an old, boxy television set. Paula notices tiny burn marks surrounding an empty ashtray on the sofa’s armrest.
“Hello?” she says. “Angela? Mary? Is anyone home?”
They walk past the sofa and into the kitchen. There, they see that a large part of the vinyl floor has melted into a pile of blue-and-white goop. Scorch marks cover the cabinetry all around it. The acrid smell intensifies further, but Paula manages to maintain her composure. Robert, however, leans over and dry heaves.
“You all right?” Paula says.
Robert nods, covering his mouth and wheezing. “I’m fine,” he says.
Not finding anything of interest, they exit the kitchen and go back through the living room. Then they enter the hallway where they find three closed doors, one on either side and one at the end. Paula approaches the door to her right and finds that it’s locked. She tries the one across the way and it opens into a bathroom. The aroma of gasoline fills the air, replacing the rotten smell in the rest of the house.
She feels around on the bathroom’s wall for the light switch. Finding it, she flips it on. A fluorescent bulb hangs half-detached from the ceiling. It buzzes as it flickers to life.
Littering the tile floor are several empty cardboard tubes labeled “orange juice concentrate.” Among them, she sees empty plastic gas cans and small chunks of white polystyrene foam. A peculiar orange residue coats the inside of the bathtub.
Sitting inside the dirty sink is a piece of paper. Paula picks it up and studies it. She finds that upon it are handwritten instructions on how to make homemade napalm. The print is in girly, cursive handwriting. Little hearts dot the lowercase “i’s” and “j’s.”
“What is it?” Robert says.
She holds the paper up for him to see. He looks at it for a moment, then says, “It looks like we found our newest firebug.”
“Let’s hope we can stop her before she gets started,” Paula says.
They exit the bathroom and walk the rest of the way down the hall to the third and last door.
“Angela?” Paula says, knocking on the door. There’s no answer. She tries the doorknob and finds that it’s unlocked. She turns it, then pushes the door open a few inches as the hinges let out a high-pitched creak.
“Careful,” Robert says.
Paula pushes the door the rest of the way open. Blankets cover the two windows inside the room. Burning candles sit in a circle on the floor, surrounding a wooden chair. They shine with a soft, foreboding glow. On the floor next to one of the candles is a yellow matchbox with a green giraffe stenciled on the side.
They look inside the room and gasp. Sitting upright in the chair is a human corpse, burned beyond recognition. The mouth of its hairless, eyeless, red-and-orange skull hangs open, screaming in silence. Its skin is charred and melted.
The scene reminds Paula of the shrine she and Jerome found inside Randy Peterson’s apartment. She guesses that the body is that of a woman based on its size. She notices that it’s holding a piece of paper in its left hand. Reluctantly, she reaches out and grabs it.
Upon it she finds a crude drawing, like some kind of bizarre blueprint. She’s unsure of what it is at first, but then a look of horrified comprehension spreads across her face. She reaches into her pocket to grab her phone, but finds she has no service and can’t make a call.
“Robert,” she says, anxiously. “Can you call Debra? My phone’s not working.”
He takes his phone out of his pocket and looks at it. “Mine’s not working either.”
Her hand shaking, she holds up the piece of paper and speaks with rising panic in her voice. “These are plans to burn down the Peppajay City Square with napalm!”
“The City Square?” he says, dismayed. “The annual art fair is happening there right now. A fire could kill hundreds of people!”
“We have to warn the others,” Paula says.
The bedroom door slams shut behind them. Robert rushes over and tries to open it, but it won’t budge.
“It’s locked!” he says.
Smoke begins pouring into the room from under the door, as does a soft, dancing light. The source can only be a burning flame.
“The house is on fire!” Robert says. “Smash the window!”
Paula steps behind the wooden chair and tilts it forward. The burned corpse collapses into a heap on the floor, knocking over several candles. Then she picks up the chair and heaves it against the blanket-covered window. They hear glass shatter, but the chair bounces off with a metallic clang. Paula pulls the blanket down, spilling sunlight into the room. Her heart sinks at what she sees. Metal security bars cover the window from the outside. She rushes over to the other window and pulls its blanket down as well, but there are metal bars covering it, too.
“No!” she says, slamming her fist against the wall. Robert begins frantically trying to pull, push, or knock the bars on the other window out of place. But they won’t move.
A teenage girl wearing a dirty dress covered in orange stains appears in the window in front of Paula. She has long, thin scars on her face and a large burn scar on the side of her left temple. She stares at Paula with a hideous smile.
“Angela?” Paula says. “Angela, help us! We’re trapped! The house is on fire! Please, help us!”
Robert comes over to the window. “Please help us, sweetie!” he says. “We can’t get out!”
Angela doesn’t move, but instead continues looking at Paula with the same sick grin. It reminds Paula of the way the young man looked at her as he walked backwards into the restaurant fire. Likewise, the girl starts slowly backing away from the window, smiling the entire time.
The girl’s gaze turns upward, and her expression changes to one of fascination. Paula realizes she’s looking at the flames from the house fire; it must’ve reached the roof. A sense of impending doom fills her mind as she loses all hope of survival. Smoke fills the room, and she and Robert cough uncontrollably. They collapse onto the floor, gasping for air.
Angela turns and walks down the dirt path, then out onto the road toward the city. A column of smoke rises above the trees behind her as she takes a plastic lighter out of her dress pocket. Covering it with one hand as she walks, she flicks it over and over again, staring at the flame, entranced.
“Burn…” the flame says, whispering. “Burn… burn… burn…”