Nick Lysohir recently graduated with a civil engineering degree from the Colorado School of Mines. He wrote the following short story for Professor Joanne Greenberg's fiction-writing class. Note: Language may be offensive to some readers.
The clean smell of Isopropyl drifted through the air. It had to be Isopropyl, it burns clean, and completely, leaving little trace of its existence. Everything was ready. Paper bins prepared to ignite, trashcans strategically placed. The familiar clink of the Zippo, a twitch of the thumb, and there it was. The flame. It danced on the tip of the lighter, waiting to be released. He knew that this was just fire, a natural thing, a chemical reaction, but from somewhere deep within him he felt it speaking to him. The flame was a beautiful thing that needed to be set free, needed to consume.
He reached down behind the copying machine, releasing the one flame onto a group of soaked power cords. Within seconds the flame was multiplying, climbing the wall, and seeping into the paper filled trash can. He stood there for a few moments, flames dancing wildly in his eyes, admiring the beauty of it. Fire is alive; it destroys its surroundings, takes from everything, to survive, to grow. It multiplies, it moves, it speaks… It's beautiful.
He felt a pleasure beyond his ability to contain as he writhed with ecstasy, the flames singing to him and dancing in his eyes.
The heat was becoming unbearable. He turned and walked away from his work, a feeling of satisfaction deep within him. The Zippo slid smoothly into his side pocket as he slid carefully out the back door, looking back only once to see the quivering orange glow from farther back in the offices. The cold air of the November night stung his face compared with the inferno he had just walked out of.
* * *
John waited outside West Kirkland Middle School for his dad. His friends were all gone, and as usual his dad was late. It was cold and the sky was a single unchanging sheet of gray. He picked up some stones, and took aim at the stop sign across the street. His first stone missed by several feet, but he struck home with the second, making a loud hollow bang and leaving the sign quivering in the wind.
Kirkland was a quiet little suburb of Seattle, mostly populated by upper middle class businessmen and their families. John's family was no exception. John's dad was an owner in a large engineering firm, with a few offices around the northwest. John's mother worked at home, so she could stay and take care of his two younger sisters.
A sharp cold rain began to fall, and John quickly zipped up his jacket and flipped up his collar. John was annoyed at having to wait in the rain again. More rocks thrown, more misses, still no dad. John decided to begin walking towards home. It was a good 3 miles, but he just didn't see the sense of standing in the rain, making no progress. Plus if he made it all the way home, his leverage of guilt on his dad would surely be enough to get him a new X-Box game or something.
After only 30 yards or so, he saw his dad's BMW speeding around the corner. A slight feeling of disappointment at his lost chance for a new game faded quickly, as his obvious adoration for his father forced him to smile and wave.
"Hop in buddy!" his dad shouted after he had reached across the passenger seat to open the door for him. John tossed his bag over the seat, and slid into the cool leather passenger seat, smearing water everywhere. His dad playfully tousled his wet hair and teased "Could ya make any more of a mess in my car?"
"If you weren't 20 minutes late to pick me up, I wouldn't be wet." John replied sullenly. Maybe he could still work the guilt and get something out of the deal.
"I'm sorry buddy, it won't happen again. I owe you some ice cream or something, that'll fix it?"
John rolled his eyes, he knew his dad too well. He also knew that his dad wanted to buy some time before they went home. He knew it wouldn't be pleasant if mom realized he'd had to wait out in the rain. Dad would get the silent treatment all night if John were to show up home all wet.
"Have you heard the new "Halo" came out last week? It's supposed to be the best X-Box game yet. I bet you'd like it too." John replied, a little to nonchalantly.
His dad looked over at him, grinning, "You take after your old man boy! Always the business man looking for a deal." He turned his head back to the road beaming proudly.
* * *
The Detective kicked some of the smoking rubble aside, exposing a half melted aluminum trashcan full of half burnt paper. He squatted to get a closer look, careful not to touch the still hot metal. He had a feeling about this one. This fire was just too thorough, leaving very little trace of any cause. Tell that to the jury he thought; see what good that will do. None.
All of the incendiary tests turned up negative. No trace of chemical or petroleum products, the site was dry. There is no evidence of arson; maybe I am just trying to force this one. I haven't had a good case all year. He thought to himself. Maybe I just want this to be arson, but in the back of his head, something was whispering to him, telling him otherwise.
Just like the trashcan on the other side, this one was full of paper, most of which was blank. How convenient for the fire he thought. All of the trashcans just happened to be very full of paper, ready to burn. He still knew this would not stand up in court. Full trashcans were not an unusual thing at an engineering firm, and blank paper didn't mean much. He needed to gather more evidence.
* * *
John was well into the third stage of the new "Halo" when he heard his mother crying down the hall. Both of his sisters were in bed, but he had another half an hour before it was time for him. John finished killing all of the aliens in his general vicinity before pausing the game. The last thing you need when coming back to a paused game is a surprise attack when you're not ready for it.
He put down his controller and walked down the hall towards his parent's room, all the while trying to imagine what would make his mom cry. He'd only seen his mom cry once, at the funeral of his aunt. John's mom wasn't generally prone to emotional out bursts. The whole sympathy, guilt trip ploy never worked on her like it did with dad. His mom was a "Ball Buster" he had once overheard his dad telling his friends. He wasn't exactly sure what that meant, but he figured it had something to do with the fact that mom was usually the boss around the house, not dad.
The door to his parents room was cracked open just enough for John to peek through. He saw his mom sitting on the end of the bed, her face in her hands. "The whole place burnt down?" his mom sobbed. "How?"
"It was an electrical fire, they think. Started in the copy room. It's an accident honey, these things happen." His dad comfortingly put his hands on her shoulders.
"How did it go so far? What about the alarm system, the fire department? Why wasn't it put out?"
"Honey… There's a lot of details to go over, but don't cry. This is nothing we can't get through."
"We had so much invested in that office, that was you second oldest."
"I know, it's going to be a tough blow to the company but, that is what the insurance is for. Trust me, we'll be fine." It was the same voice his dad had used when John had lost the championship peewee football game last year.
John was shocked. One of the offices had burnt down? Which one? He'd never seen a real fire! Just then his dad glanced over at the cracked door. John ducked back quickly, he knew well enough not to be eavesdropping on his parents, that would get him in a good deal of trouble. John sprinted as quietly as possible back to the den, leapt over the back of the couch and grabbed his controller, all in one swift motion.
* * *
He saw his work on the news. He'd done his job well. No talk of foul play was mentioned. He knew how to cover it up, that's why his work was worth so much. His client was right about the fire system, inadequate to deal with the well-planned fire. The old building had burnt nearly to the ground before they had been able to stop it.
All he had to do now was wait for payment. Everything had to be settled with the insurance companies, banks, and lawyers. Paperwork had to be pushed, meetings had take place, appraisals had to be made. That was not of his concern. He just waited for his payment, 5% in cash. They had 6 months.
* * *
"We have to let them go, we can't support them right now. The insurance claim will compensate them for 3 months, that's the best deal I could work out." John's dad spoke heatedly into the cell phone. "That will be plenty of time for them to find something new."
John's dad had told him about the fire the day after he had overheard him telling his mother. Since the fire it seemed that his dad was constantly on the phone or in meetings. He had overheard a lot about "chapter seven's" and "division bankruptcy". John wasn't sure what "chapter seven" meant. He knew bankruptcy was a bad thing from watching "Wheel of Fortune". This didn't seem to bother his dad, in fact John thought it seemed like his dad wanted to have a "division bankruptcy" whatever that meant.
He had asked one day "Dad, isn't it really bad to be bankrupt?" His dad had answered with a confident smile, "Don't worry about it, your old man knows how to take care of things." John was confused.
John had pestered his dad for a few days after the fire to take him to see the remains of the office. He finally gave in, complaining that John was going to drive him nuts someday. When they pulled up to the burnt office, there were several people there. His dad told him they were inspectors from the insurance company.
The building was unrecognizable. What once had been a sophisticated looking office the size of his sister's grade school had been reduced to a blackened pile of rubble. Many sections of the outer wall still stood, places where the brick had managed to stand up to the falling debris. The inner part of the office was ruined, except for the occasional doorframe, jutting up from the ashes, and twisted-melted aluminum.
John had wasn't sure what he had expected to see, but this wasn't nearly as cool as he thought it would be. He soon lost interest and pulled his Gameboy from his backpack in the back seat. Leaning against the BMW, he loaded up his saved game, and continued his conquest of the underworld.
Glancing up from the game, John could see his dad talking to one of the inspectors. His dad glanced around, then handed the man an envelope, which was quickly shoved into a coat pocket. They both nodded, and shook hands.
Across the adjacent street, John also noticed two men sitting in a parked car, one with a pair of binoculars, and one with a notepad and pen. John looked back down at his game as his dad began walking back towards the car.
While driving home, his dad made a few phone calls. John paid little attention; he was still trying to beat the boss on the fourth level. He could tell one call was to his mom, letting her know that they would be home soon. One was probably to a client, something about meeting deadlines, and getting approval.
The third call was unusual; he could faintly hear the high-agitated voice of a man on the other line. His dad said that things were working out as planned, and to be patient. The voice on the other line became furious. John was able to make out parts of the high-pitched yelling. "DON'T YOU TELL ME ………………… I AM …………. MONEY……..MINE………….. BURNT IT DOWN FOR YOU!" The last few words hit John like a truck, his heart stopped. John was smart enough to piece this together, and realize what was going on. His dad quickly hung up on the screaming man and glanced at John nervously. John kept his eyes down on his game, pretending not to hear.
* * *
He still had nothing and he knew it. The Detective had waited out in the numbing cold all morning. The man and his kid had come around 9:00. He had exchanged words and a very conspicuous looking envelope with the head inspector.
He played back the recording again. No, The shotgun mic had picked up absolutely nothing incriminating. The Detective knew what was in the envelope, but a lawyer could convince a jury it was anything. He still had no case. He'd have to go after the kid. Kids always overheard things they shouldn't, and they weren't smart enough to know better.
* * *
The company received an insurance settlement of 10.8 million dollars. This was a lot more than they had expected, John had overheard his dad telling his mom. John realized his mom was still troubled. She said she was worried about all of the employees that had been laid off as a result of the fire. John's dad however seemed very happy, and worked hard to reassure her that everyone and everything was fine.
* * *
The Client contacted him. Settlement had been reached, and the money was ready. The Arsonist was becoming very edgy and irritable. He had not been able to satisfy himself in several weeks. He had to be careful and keep a low profile until he left Seattle, for the sake of the job. A major fire in the area now would seem suspicious with all the talk of the firm fire.
When the phone rang yesterday, he had known it was the client. No one else had the number. The client's self-assured arrogance was amplified; the Arsonist could sense it, even over the cheap phone. He hated the client. His over confident tone of voice, evident sense of self superiority, and the gleaming cheap smile he had seen only once, made the man intolerable. But he was the client, and he had the money. As long as he paid, the Arsonist didn't care what the man was like. The Arsonist would be gone, and on to a new city.
The Client had secured a taxi and it's driver, which was to pick him up on the corner of 6th and Everett. The payment was to be in a suitcase located in the trunk, cash of course. The Arsonist did not mention the amount. The Client knew the deal. After the cab dropped him off on the outskirts of Seattle where The Arsonist had transportation waiting. He would be gone.
* * *
The phone hung up with a click. John snuck away from the office. Ever since he had heard the man screaming on the phone about the fire, John had become obsessed with eavesdropping on his father. He had listened with rapt interest to several conversations and phone calls, piecing together what had happened with the fire. All the while unnoticed by his dad. He knew pretty much everything. Where the money was going, the names of different people who had gotten money, and the bribes that had been paid.
The man who had burnt down the office was leaving the next day. John heard his dad through the door, making the deals over the phone; the cab driver, the money in the trunk, the man's van waiting at Maggiano's Pizza on the south side of town. It was exciting for John to know all of these details. It was like a gangster movie, only his dad was the star.
John had realized over the past few weeks, that what his dad was doing was wrong. It was against the law. He knew that his dad was lying to everyone, including his family. He was stealing money from the insurance people, but they didn't know it. The night John first came to this realization, he cried. Though he couldn't describe it with words, he recognized greed and lust in his father's eyes.
* * *
The Detective waited out behind the middle school on the basketball courts. He had questioned his intuition at first, not sure if this was truly arson, but now he was convinced. He had the whole case pieced together in his head. Several small bits of evidence, meticulously gathered. The Detective knew however, everything he had was not enough to put anyone away. He needed something bigger, something that would convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. He needed to get his hands on The Arsonist.
He could see the kid walking past the fence on the far side of the courts. He started to follow. He knew what he had to do, and it wasn't quite legal, but if he got the information he needed, that wouldn't matter.
* * *
The Cabbie glanced nervously to his rear view mirror. He could sense that this man was not quite right. The man had only opened his eyes twice since he had picked him up on the corner, and the Cabbie hoped he wouldn't open them again. He had penetrating sky blue eyes that seemed to look right through you, as if in search for something he desperately needed. The Cabbie was beginning to think he might have gotten in too deep with this one. Five hundred bucks was great for a half hour drive, but he was beginning to regret making the deal with the smooth talking businessman. Just get to the spot The Cabbie thought. You can put this behind you, $500 bucks richer.
There it was, Maggiano's Pizza. The parking lot was half full of cars, but devoid of people. The Cabbie turned in, his clammy sweating hands almost slipping on the steering wheel.
"Stop behind the maroon mini-van" his passenger spoke for the first time. His voice was irritated, and higher pitched than The Cabbie had expected.
The Cabbie stopped as he was told, and pulled the trunk release, eager to be rid of the man. His Passenger sensed this and gave him a cold stare through the rear-view mirror. The Cabbie averted his eyes.
* * *
The Detective saw the cab pull up, and stop. The kid had told him the place. He had felt like an a--hole, cornering the kid, and threatening him, but he knew that the kid had the information that he needed. He could tell by the look in his tear filled eyes. This bust would break the case wide open; lots of people would be going to jail, including the kid's embezzling s--- of a father.
The man got out of the backseat and walked around to the trunk, pulling out his suitcase and closing the trunk. The Cab waited. The Detective opened his door and began to move. He was ready.
* * *
The Arsonist reached into the trunk and pulled out the suitcase. He closed the trunk, and told the blithering fool of a cab driver not to move with a look. Again the driver glanced away nervously, and gripped the steering wheel. The arsonist set the suitcase on the closed trunk and unlatched the fasteners on the suitcase. He quickly opened it and looked inside. The money was there. He would count it later. He closed the suitcase, latched it, and walked to the mini-van, dismissing the driver with a disgusted wave of the hand. As the cab sped off, he placed the suitcase in the back seat of the mini-van.
* * *
As the cab sped off, The Detective sprinted across the parking lot with his gun drawn. He began to yell when he was within 20ft of the man. "FREEZE! PUT YOUR HANDS ON YOUR HEAD!!!" The man spun around with a look of fear in his eyes, throwing his hands in the air. The Detective threw him roughly against a ford pickup, and checked him for weapons, all the while keeping his .357 trained on his head. He was relieved to find the man was unarmed. He quickly snapped a pair of hand-cuffs on the man's wrists
The Detective reached into the back seat and grabbed the case. He turned back to the Man and sneered at him.
"What's in the case?"
The man didn't speak. The Detective pushed him harder against the Ford. "WHAT'S IN THE CASE?" The Detective yelled. The man made a slight sobbing sound, as the Detective stared him down.
The man fit the stereotyped profile for an arsonist to a tee; weak posture, agitated face, un-kempt greasy black hair, and those shifty green eyes. The Detective felt nothing but contempt for this disturbed little man.
The Detective gave the man one more hard shove, making sure to smash his forearm into the man's trachea. The man slammed into the truck, choking and coughing. The Detective unlatched the suitcase and gave it a quick jerk….
The suitcase burst open and spilled clothes all over the pavement….
His case was ruined.
* * *
His dark figure was silhouetted against the blaze of the feed-storage wharehouse. The icy plains of Wyoming stretched out behind him. He sighed in relief as the waves of pleasure washed over him. The heat singed his facial hair, as flames danced in his entranced eyes. He imagined the client and his boy were trapped inside. He could hear them screaming. It increased the pleasure.