Flames of Passion
The Blue Jay’s façade lit up brighter than ever before as flames spat from its windows, dancing in the night like tortured birds. Its warmth coursed over my face, and the smoke, bitter and harsh, drove away every trace of Autumn’s brisk chill. The street around us was deserted—no one was stupid enough hang around this neighborhood at three in the morning when they knew we were around. But I could feel eyes on us from the apartments down the block. When we cleared out, someone would probably call 9-1-1. I really hoped they would wait ‘til we were gone.
One of the guys had suggested we use gasoline, but I knew better. Most liquors are plenty flammable, and they don’t leave evidence of an arson around for detectives to find. All I had to do was toss a few bottles of rum and tequila about, drop a cigarette, and get the hell out. I’d saved one drink for the road: a bottle of Jamesport Merlot clasped in my trembling right hand, its dark contents sloshing as my shoulders rose and fell. At least I’d kept the alcohol off my suit—it was a new suit, and a nice one besides, though it would certainly smell of smoke after tonight. I could tell I used too much fuel, in fact, but no one seemed to mind. Around me, a few of the guys were laughing and chattering amongst themselves. One of the new boys was whining that he’d missed his chance to grab some drinks before the bar went up in flames. To my left, an officer lit a cigarette between his lips. Me, I just stared. The glowing flames left spots in my vision, and the Blue Jay, with its broken door and the window on each side, stared back at me with fire spilling from its eyes and mouth.
A hand laid itself on my right hip, and I was too distracted to push it off. I knew whose hand it was, anyway. Wrapping an arm around my waist, my boss said, “Whatcha think, Barb? Having fun yet?”
I kept my gaze on the inferno ahead. “Glad everyone got out before we lit it up.”
“You lit it up,” the boss said, and his hand came up to squeeze squeezed my shoulder. “And who said we got everyone out?”
I jerked around to find the boss’s face too close for comfort, but not so close that I was brave enough to complain. I had a bigger concern anyway. I said, “Surely there’s no one still in there!” If I’d make a mistake, if someone had been in the bathroom…
My boss snorted, laughed, and slipped away from me. “Fuck, I hope not. They’d be feeling toasty right about now. Nah, we got everyone. I know the place well enough. Spent six hours a night here for the last five years.”
I wasn’t sure I was convinced, but I let it drop. I was the new girl; best I avoid looking like an idiot for as long as possible. Instead I said, “I left broken chairs and tables, spilled bottles, a tipped trash can. No gasoline or lighter fluid. Plenty of evidence for a bar fight gone wrong, no evidence of foul play.” I raised my spare hand and clenched my fist, so that my glove’s fingers creaked. “Meanwhile, you emptied the safe and I caved in that little compartment under the office floor. Even if cops show up right now, all they’ll find is a bunch of well-dressed people angry that their favorite drinking hole’s toast. They have no reason to suspect arson, except that…”
The boss grinned. “Except that the Blue Jay is my place, and the cops know me,” he said, making a show of pressing hairsprayed bangs across his forehead. “I get a pretty sum for insurance, out of which comes your first paycheck. Bet you’re happy about that, huh?”
“Uh-huh.” I looked back at the fire. The neon sign by the door crackled as the flames licked the tubes and the gas inside. The heat was staggering, hotter than I’d felt in a long time, and the air was dry, suffocated. And the flames had reached the building’s roof, bathing us in flickering light as if we’d stepped into hell. The Blue Jay was suffering. And I couldn’t look away. It was almost beautiful, like a swan spayed out in death or some other shit animal metaphor.
My boss said, “You’re a virgin, ain’tcha?”
“Your first job. First felony,” he said. “Arson, woah! Pretty bold for your first night out. And it gets easier as it goes, method-wise. You get good at it. And, heh, I’ll bet it can get boring after a few months.”
“Not this,” I said, waving my hand toward the Blue Jay. Something heavy collapsed inside, and a few burning scraps of paper blew from the doorway, settling into dying embers on the street. “This mess in front of me, this rush of adrenaline and smoke? This could never get stale.” The boss laughed, and I was sure I’d said something stupid. His hand clasped my shoulder and he turned me toward him.
“You’re into it, then? You like this?” he said. No smirking now; the boss looked me straight in the eyes with a grave look I was seeing for the first time.
I nodded. “Yes sir.”
“Gonna be a busy time for us soon. A lot of fires, plenty of money to be had. You staying, Barb?”
“Yes sir.” I nodded too quickly, and my fingers clenched around the wine bottle’s neck. Tonight was the best time I’d had since college. The boss smiled and stepped next to me, slinging his arm across my shoulders.
“Good to have you with us, Miss Lenton,” the boss said, squeezing me closer. I had nothing to say, so I shut my mouth and watched the blaze. A beam or something gave way inside, and one of the thugs whooped as the roof collapsed and a gush of smoke poured into the night’s filthy air. I couldn’t help but smile. This was it; I was in. I was a gangster now.
It was something like five in the morning when I finally got back to my apartment. One side of the sky was a bit brighter than the rest, but Ingram, New York was still very much asleep. I shrugged off my blazer and dropped into an armchair. It rocked a few times until I planted my feet and reclined all the way back. Now I could feel the sweat stuck to my skin, the grit and smoke in my hair. I had brought the scent of smoke in with me, I realized. I’d have to do something about that.
Even after being up all night, I was still wired. I took a shower then hit the computer, browsing the local news. I found a cursory report about the fire on Tenth Avenue—local bar fire, no casualties, and firefighters failed to save the building. The bar belonged to one Richard Garrett, local businessman and property owner. Said Mr. Garrett was suspected—but never brought to trial—in connection with acts of theft, extortion, and arson throughout Ingram.
I knew this all, of course, but I enjoyed seeing how the new articles built up since I last checked. In the past week, the Ingram Police Department had discovered a burnt-down laundromat loaded with cocaine, an extortion against a slumlord in the projects, bullet holes and casings under the I-84 bridge, and now this bar fire. In fairness, a lot of the police’s suspicions should be aimed at the Panthera Brotherhood or Silvers or any of the other gangs who actually did the deeds in question, but Garrett was no boyscout. He’d done maybe forty percent of the various criminal acts whose news reports bore his name. Oh, he didn’t tell me that himself, but his goons were chatty enough to a cute lady, and I could do the math.
I stayed up, surfing random news articles without reading anything. I’d just joined the empire of the most prolific criminal in the state, and what a rush it was. This sure beat my old customer service gig; that was for sure. Having to field questions each day from mindless fucks too stupid to find the security code on their card was absolutely soul-rending. Decent people otherwise, of course, but I hated dealing with them. Whatever degrees or experience a customer had, six times out of ten they turned into a scatterbrained idiot on the phone. I won’t say Garrett saved me from that, because he didn’t. My own impatience did.
I jumped as someone knocked on my door, hard and quick. I was in a bathrobe, and someone was at the door at—I looked at the clock—seven in the morning? Dammit, when was I going to sleep? I put the computer to sleep and stepped over my cat toward the door. Fumbles gave an irritable mew and shuffled off for the bedroom. Yeah, my thoughts exactly.
I peered through the peephole and found a big guy wearing a suede overcoat outside. He had no package at his feet, nothing to sell, and no bible in his hand. I opened the door wide enough to show the security chain bolted into place. “Can I help you?” I said.
“You just might be able to,” the man said, and he drew a badge from his belt. “Detective Vargas, IPD. Do you have a minute?”
My reply caught in my throat, probably on the lump growing in there. I shut the door and fumbled with the door chain, my guts churning and heart racing. How? Why? What had I left behind that could tie me to anything a detective would pursue? I’d only been working with Garrett for a few days. I got the chain off and opened the door again, a bit wider than before. Detective Vargas blinked as he saw me in my robe, damp strawberry-blonde hair plastered against my neck. He wisely kept his eyes on my face. Pretending I was just waking up, I said, “What can I help you with, Officer?”
“Detective,” Vargas said, stuffing his badge out of sight. “But it’s no big deal. I’m sorry to bother you at such an early hour, Ma’am. It’s just that your window faces out into Tenth Street, toward the bar that caught fire last night.” I blinked in surprise. So it was. I was just down the street from the Blue Jay—maybe someone from my apartment had seen us, though the certainly wouldn’t be able to recognize me at that distance. “I was wondering if you saw anything last night. Anyone around the front of the building, perhaps?”
“Hm.” I nonchalantly peered out the doorway and spotted another plainclothes detective, probably Vargas’s partner, speaking to a tenant down the hall. They were canvasing the whole building then, not just my place. Good. I said, “Don’t think I saw anything. I turned in early last night. I was—” I inclined my head toward the inside of my apartment, “—just getting ready for work. What time was the fire?”
Without checking any notes, Detective Vargas said, “Oh, the fire department showed up around three thirty-five AM. They think the fire started at least an hour before, though. A lady mentioned seeing people out front while the blaze was still going. I thought you might have seen something.”
I shook my head. “Sorry. I was asleep, and the bedroom doesn’t have a window.” The detective regarded me with unwanted curiosity and I put on an awkward smile. “Sorry I can’t be of any help.”
“Oh, it’s no trouble, Ma’am!” Vargas said. “I’ll keep asking around. Again, sorry to bother you.”
“Have yourself a nice day, Officer,” I said, and I shut the door as he turned away. I listened at the crack, hearing Vargas’s plodding footsteps as he passed down the hall and knocked on another door. I waited at the door, nails digging into the sleeve of my robe. Soon as the detective and his partner were away, I locked the door, shut the deadbolt, and put the security chain in place. My heart was still hammering away; I felt like I’d dodged a bullet. What was that about? Did the detective suspect something? Probably not, but it seemed too bizarre a coincidence that the IPD would visit apartment 208 on the same day its tenant started a fire down the street.
I stumbled into the bedroom without bothering to turn on the light. Fumbles the cat was seated on my mattress, keeping it warm for me. “Scoot,” I said, and I shoved his body aside with one hand. Fumbles just rolled over, then laid against me as I slipped under the comforter. I decided I’d set an alarm and get a little nap in, just a few hours before I had to check with my boss. I’d have to do something about my damp hair when I got up, but that was then, not now.
I’d just had my first experience with an officer of the law, and he’d scared the hell out of me just by knocking. I laughed to myself, a meek, lifeless sound. What a thrill this job was turning out to be.