Watching a house in broad daylight was probably the most boring thing I’d ever done—and I knew boring; I’d been in the Navy. It was a nice house, certainly better than the apartment where I grew up, but mired in ritzy suburbia where the most exciting development was Jehovah’s Witnesses at the door. I tapped my finger against my arm, sitting up straight in my truck’s seat so I wouldn’t doze. Someone once told me that if I sat in the passenger’s seat, I could pretend I was waiting for the driver or, say, my husband to return. And if I sat behind the wheel, I’d be too tempted to just drive off.
For all appearances, Benjamin McGavin was an upper-middle class office employee living in the ‘burbs with his family. I saw him set off for work in his Audi at eight AM, though he didn’t see me. I saw his wife take the kids to school—a boy and two girls, six through twelve or so. The wife came back at eleven and stayed home. I wondered what she was up to. A part of me, this dumb curious part of my mind, wanted to go and introduce myself on some pretense, maybe get a look inside. But that wasn’t gonna happen, no matter how bored I got. If any of them saw my face at any point, I’d have fucked up big-time.
I got interested when the wife left in the SUV before three. Off to pick up the kids? I stayed in the car, watching and waiting. She was back past three thirty, her brood in tow. Nothing happened until seven, when Ben came home. By then the sun had fallen so far that I could only make out dim shapes. When McGavin was out of sight, I slipped out of the car and crossed the road to 204 Collin Street. I was confident no one could really see me in my black suit and overcoat. I kept to the shadows anyway.
I circled the house once, eyes peeled for sensors. Even if I found none, I expect there were at least alarms inside the house. I crossed the neighbor’s lawn and passed between the houses, then through the wooden gate and around back to the alleyway. The McGavins had a side door and a gate leading to their backyard but I didn’t touch them. Instead, I looked through a crack between the fence boards. They had a pool, and a nice one at that. No dogs. Thank god.
I glanced over the garage and headed out front again. I could hear something from the McGavins’ window, shouting or maybe a TV. I knew I’d look suspicious if they found me back here, but something, probably the stupid part of my brain again, made me stop. I listened at the window and heard Benjamin McGavin’s voice, then a sharp blow, a hand on flesh. Mrs. McGavin began to cry. I crept down the lawn again and across the street, my fists clenched. Of course none of Benjamin McGavin’s habits made it okay to burn his house down. But I’d enjoy this job just a bit more knowing what kind of man he was.
I spied on them the next day, then the two days after that. Every night McGavin came home a little later, staggering into his garage like he’d returned from his most recent ass-kicking. I eavesdropped as he took it out on his wife and kids, too. Each day was the same, routine and misery and shouting. Hard to watch, but easy to plan on how to fuck it up.
Day five was when I decided to execute. I called Dick from my car, watching as Mrs. McGavin took her kids off to school. Dick picked up on the fifth ring, and I heard a yawn before his voice came on. “What?”
“Boss. Good morning,” I said.
“Can’t call me this early, Barb. Especially if you’re gonna call me Boss. Remember what we discussed,” said my boss.
“The sun is up, sir,” I said. My navy sleep schedule was still drummed into me, and I had little patience for late risers. “When’s the best time for a wake-up call? Two or three in the afternoon?”
“Ha fucking ha,” Dick said. “What can I do for you, you spiteful demon?”
“Got a question about McGavin,” I said, and I cleared my throat away from the phone. There was a decent chance Dick wouldn’t like this. “What did he do to owe you so much?”
Dick laughed. “Gambling,” he said. “Obsessed. Can’t do without it. McGavin found one of my underground establishments a few years back and started bleeding for us right away. Not a winner right there. I was happy to give him a loan, but that guy…” Dick sighed. “Guy’s an ass. Never gonna pay me back, never gonna stop spending. Guy like that doesn’t quit until he’s bled himself dry, and the fucker’s got a family. They’re trapped in that house with him until someone snaps.”
I said, “So, what is this, retribution? This is your way of fixing the situation?”
“Yep!” Dick said. “I bet his wife leaves him after the fire, takes the kids with her. Start a clean slate, you know?”
Dick laughed, and I shuddered. “That’s really fucked up, Boss,” I said.
“Isn’t it? Good thing I have such a reliable employee to make sure it goes off without a hitch.”
“Fine,” I said. I was still going to do it. I just had a bitter taste in my mouth now.
“See ya. Let me know when it’s done.” Dick hung up. I left the phone against my ear as I stared out at the house, and at nothing. Fuck. This was a shitty situation for everyone involved—except Dick, obviously. McGavin was an addict who belonged in counseling, not on the street. But he was also an abuser, so fuck it, whatever. I’d do what I was told.
I watched, waited, and stewed. The lady came back, and I actually wanted to go out and warn her. Dumb part of my brain again. My perfect opportunity came when she left for the kids, leaving the house empty. But I waited and I stared. Three passed. Three ten. My rear stayed planted in the seat, arms crossed. Only at three twenty did I move.
At three thirty, Mrs. McGavin came home, kids in tow. I watched as they passed through the garage into the house. I saw the wife’s face through the hole I left in the front door’s window. She didn’t see me. Her eyes were on the note I’d written and left pinned to the door.
This could go wrong in so many different ways. But I had to warn the family or I wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight. Mrs. McGavin scampered across her den, appearing in one window then another within seconds. Unless she was calling the police, she was gathering her stuff—clothes, valuables, family pictures, medications. An hour later Mrs. McGavin stuffed her kids and several bulging trash bags into the SUV. I think she might have spotted me as she burned rubber down the street, but she kept her foot on the gas. She was gone by four thirty two.
Now the coast was clear, and I’d already picked the hour that the house would fall. I relaxed with a book as, minute after minute, the police failed to show up. At seven, when the sun was long gone, I drove a bit further down Collin Street and got out of the truck. I walked to the McGavins’ front door, stuck my hand through the hole I left in the window, and let myself inside.
The house was way too nice inside for a guy more than thirty thousand in debt. McGavin still had his TV, paintings, fine china, shitty sculptures… He’d just borrowed and gambled, throwing his family’s well-being in the fire. I had not an ounce of pity for him now. I took my doubts, my guilt, and buried them under my fury. Time to begin.
I started in the kitchen. This was my first time burning down a house; I figured I’d play along with my setting, get creative. I turned on the oven after stuffing in a pile of McGavin’s dirty shirts, found on the washing machine. I smashed a bottle of olive oil on the stove, then laid on a full chicken and turned the burners on high. The coffeemaker’s wiring was worn—I unplugged it, tore at it with a pair of scissors, and plugged it in before turning it on. Already the kitchen was feeling cozy, but I’d just begun. I found the drier and, with some effort, dragged it away from the wall. Its gas line stretched out, waiting just for me. I stabbed the line with my knife, the one I keep at my waist, then started the drier. The heat was getting hard to stand, so I got out of the kitchen.
I was going to create the mother of all house fires. My plan was less good ideas and more a stack of iffy ideas I wanted to try. A gas fireplace in the den? On. An electric blanket in the master bedroom? Sure. It was cold tonight, after all. I stabbed it a few times with my knife, then plugged it in and threw it over the bed. Even the garage held its surprises—I found a propane grill and dragged it toward a pile of paint supplies, then splashed a fine abstract piece across the floor and walls with oil paints. Not a drop on my overcat or my gloves, of course.
Time to make myself scarce. I took one final pass through the house, tipping wood furniture over and drawing lazy lines across the walls with my knife. I was almost sad to go, but there was gas in the air and my coat wasn’t explosion-proof. On my way to the front door, I actually spied a cat peering at me from one of the kids’ rooms, but it ran under the bed before I could catch it. I shrugged and head for the front door. He’d have to get out on his own.
Flashing blue and red lights shone through the windows.
I really hoped Mrs. McGavin hadn’t called the cops on me, taking advantage of my kind warning so she could ruin my day. My note had certainly been clear on the bad shit about to go down. Now there was at least one police car waiting outside, and voices came through the front door’s shattered window. But I knew this house as well as my apartment by now. I crept around to a side exit and stepped into a nest of bushes. And of course, the police had sent someone over there, too.
“Stop! Let me see your hands!” said one of the cops, whose voice was familiar—gruff, but familiar. The detective from last week came to my mind. This cop was halfway in shadow, already drawing a revolver. I showed him my hands, raised to shoulder-level. I stayed in the darkness, too, and the officer spoke quickly into a radio, stepping closer for a look at me. My blood was racing in my veins; I could think of so many ways this could go wrong and one way—one—that it could go right.
The police officer was almost close enough to make out my face when the gas blew. Called it.
The explosion was in the kitchen, but a burst of heat still ripped across the house, blasting windows open from within and streaking across my face with terrifying nearness. The cop staggered, the gun dropped, and I saw my chance. I caught the cop’s extended arm and rammed my knee into his belly, then tossed him to the grass. Some part of the lawn was on fire, and frantic voices were shouting all around me, calling for backup and the fire department and God. As I was about to bolt, another officer ran around the house’s corner, just a yard away from me. I got her across the face with a haymaker and shoved her into the bushes. While she was still groping in the dark, I put the voices behind me and ran.
I had parked down the block, and I was sure the cops wouldn’t suspect my truck of being a getaway car. But I had to get to the truck first, and without being followed. I leaped over a smoking piece of debris—an entire marble bust, weirdly enough—between the two houses then through the gate I’d opened so many times. Soon enough the fires would consume the entire house. Pity I’d have to miss it. I darted across the driveway and into the alley, while wild footsteps stamped on the path behind me.
I tried for distance over speed, hoping to outrun my injured pursuer, but a glance over my shoulder found the familiar male officer ten yards behind me and gaining. I ran down the alley without even streetlamps to light my way, praying he’d lose sight of me. But he could hear my footsteps. “Stop! Stop right there!” he said. I rounded a corner by another house’s garage, trying to hide behind a fence, but he sprinted right after and spotted me again. He kept coming as I crashed through a pair of recycle bins nestled together and tromped through a bed of flowers, kicking up dirt and azaleas with each panicked step.
The officer, plainly taking his job too seriously, was still coming. I had to act fast and effectively. I hid behind an extended section of bricks on the house to my right, probably a chimney, and pressed my shaking shoulders to the wall. I could barely think to wrestle my gun from my coat, a .45 USP courtesy of Dick. When the cop ran past, he didn’t see me, but I saw him. I lunged and threw my weight into him, slamming him toward the fence ahead. He planted his hands on the wood and scrambled about to face me, but I shoved the barrel of my gun against his back. The squirming stopped.
“Don’t move,” I whispered, putting enough growl into my voice to make it indistinct, hopefully. “Drop your gun.”
“You aren’t getting out of this,” the cop said, standing up straight. Now I was sure: this was Vargas, the detective from earlier. What the fuck was he doing running into me again? “If you surrender, we can just—”
“Drop. Your fucking gun,” I said. I ground the pistol into his back, and his revolver thumped into the grass. “Hands on your head,” I said, and I took a long step back as he obeyed. “Kneel down.”
My heart was racing, part of my scalp felt singed, and my ears were ringing from the explosion. My lungs burned from that frantic chase down half a block. My trigger finger itched. Everything was too loud, happening too fast, and Detective Vargas was under my power, dropping to his knees. I was a felon now, and he was part of the system aimed at putting me in prison. Worse still, he might have seen my face. Most likely not, but I couldn’t be sure. I hadn’t gotten a chance to see his. So what the fuck was I supposed to do? My hair was pulled up in a bun, tight to my skull. My coat was baggy and hid my form. He might not even know I was a woman.
“You don’t have to do this,” Vargas said. I pressed the gun barrel to the base of his skull and he stiffened.
“Don’t make me, then,” I said. I took two steps back from Vargas, who stayed on his knees. Then I sucked in a deep breath and rounded the corner, sprinting past the houses like my ass was on fire. I didn’t dare look back; I ran for at least a full minute, stepping on grass wherever I saw it so my footsteps were softer, working my heart and legs to the point of agony. When I finally slowed to catch my breath, I’d turned out of the alleyway and emerged into the shadows of another home far down the street from the McGavin household, which now lit up the block with its blaze. The cops milling out front were tiny, dim shapes in the distance. No one followed me now.
I waited for a time, composing myself, before I crossed the street toward my truck. I climbed in and gunned the engine, then crept down the street in reverse, my lights off. No one saw me. I did a U-turn down Collin Street, watching the rear view mirror and the spitting, sputtering blaze it showed. It was beautiful. It was worth it.
Before I knew it, I was miles away and the sound of sirens had faded. A gas station’s sign flickered above, and moths circled beneath the fuel pumps’ incandescent bulbs. I fished out my phone and found Dick’s number, listed under “Captain”. He picked up on the first ring.
“What news?” Dick said.
“It’s done,” I said. I felt a bout of lightheadedness as the fact sank in. “McGavin is homeless now.”
“Good,” Dick said. “My boys will handle what happens next. Come on back, Barb. You can tell me all about it tomorrow.”
“Yes sir,” I said, and I brought the phone from my ear.
“Wait,” Dick said, and I raised my phone again. “You have fun, Barb?”
“Did I have fun?” I said. “Did I have fun spying on a dysfunctional family for days, tearing up their household, setting it on fire, and—” I hesitated. I’d let Dick know about the cops later. “Watching it burn?”
“Yeah,” Dick said. “Did ya?”
I let out a laugh, and then another spilled out and another, until my throat ached and I had to stop. “Hell fucking yes I did,” I said.