Liz Sinclair is the award-winning, bestselling author Elizabeth Sinclair, who’s written numerous novels and two acclaimed instructional books for writers. Her novels have been translated into seven languages and are sold in seventeen countries. She lives in St. Augustine, Florida, with her husband and two dogs.
It hath often been said that it is not
The death but the dying that is terrible.
—Henry Fielding, AMELIA, 1751
FIRE CHIEF JACK Sullivan was about to die a hideous death . . . and he knew it.
“Ironic, isn’t it, Jack?” The serial arsonist Jack had been pursuing for two years and had dubbed the Chessman smiled. “You’ll be dying at the hands of the one thing you’ve been fighting all your life—fire.”
He slipped on protective latex gloves and then took a can from the small black bag at his feet. Slowly, he poured until the liquid formed a large puddle on the floor near the warehouse wall.
The distinctive, almost sweet odor of acetone made its way to where Jack sat on the opposite side of the room, his hands and feet bound with duct tape. Jack’s blood went cold.
“Ah, you recognize that smell. Smells like . . .” The Chessman sniffed the air like a demented puppy. “. . . death.”
“Why in hell are you doing this?”
His captor recapped the can and turned to Jack, brows furrowed. “Oh, let me see. Because you couldn’t let it go? Because you deserve it? Because you’re not the super fireman you think you are?” Then he grinned. “Maybe . . . I’m doing it . . . just because I can.”
The Chessman dug into the bag and hauled out a light bulb, an electrical cord, an eye dropper, and a small jar of pinkish liquid—gasoline. All the makings of an incendiary device that, once it ignited in the pool of acetone, would blow Jack’s ass to hell and back. Cold dread washed over him. He tried to edge backwards, but the wall at his back blocked any escape.
“Is that fear I see on the great Jack Sullivan’s face?” The crazy bastard sniffed the air again and sighed contentedly. “Yup, I can smell it. You know exactly what all this is, don’t you, Jack?” He flashed a twisted grin. “Gonna make a hell of a fire.”
Jack knew all right. It was one of the simplest incendiary devices around. Any rookie fireman knew that it would take only one small electrical spark to blow the bulb and ignite that innocent-looking puddle of liquid into an explosive inferno. In minutes, the temperature in this room would go from that of a sultry Florida day to that of the inside of a steel blast furnace. Unless he got out of here, they’d be sweeping up what was left of him with a broom and a dustpan.
Jack kept an eye on his tormenter. He’d been so sure the Chessman was a female, but now doubts seeped into his thoughts. Women didn’t build incendiary devices as a rule. “Female fires,” as the guys referred to them, were normally set with newspapers or piles of laundry, not intricate devices like this guy was building. Still, everything else, all the clues he’d gathered, had pointed to the Chessman being a female. And something gut deep told Jack his instincts were right.
Right now, however, the gender of the arsonist was the least of his worries. He had to get the hell out of here and fast.
Think. You’ve been in tight spots before. Ass-on-the-line situations. But never one with zero odds. Until now.
The coppery taste of blood filled his mouth and mixed with the bitterness of the most intense terror he had ever known. In his heart, Jack knew this crazy bastard wanted him defeated, pleading for his life, but he’d bite his tongue off before he’d give the bastard the satisfaction of begging.
Despite his resolve not to show it, the signs of his fear began to manifest themselves. Sweat beaded on his brow and ran into his eyes. Panic clawed his gut raw. Nausea rose up, gagging him with his own bile.
He shook his head to clear it. Choices. What are the choices?
Maybe the crazy son of a bitch would listen to reason. “Think about this. Do you want to live the rest of your life looking over your shoulder? Is this what you really want to do?”
“Oh, this is absolutely what I want to do.” The arsonist stopped working and tapped the eye dropper against his cheek. “You know, Jack, you were always playing the big-shot hero. And it never occurred to you that you were flawed, just like the rest of us mortals. If you had been as terrific as you saw yourself . . .” His tormentor spoke softly, almost lovingly, as he went back to assembling the device. “. . . you wouldn’t have to die . . . and neither would Katie.”
Jack’s heart skipped a beat and then seemed to freeze in his chest.
God, No! Not my beautiful Katie.
Not his only child. Stark fear turned to rage. “What the hell does Katie have to do with this? This is between you and me.”
The Chessman shook his head. “’Fraid not. She’s inherited your genes. And now that she’s back, I know it’s just a matter of time. She’ll take her fire investigation job much too seriously for her own good, and, sooner or later, she’ll become a liability for someone, just like you were for me.” He shrugged. “Eventually, she’ll have to pay for her mistakes, too.”
Like you were for me. What the hell did that mean?
Jack struggled. The duct tape’s edges cut slashes in his wrists. He didn’t have time to think about what it meant. Katie’s life was at stake. He had to stop him. “You hurt her, and I’ll—”
“You’ll what?” The arsonist’s face contorted in rage. “You’ll sic your fire minions on me? Those poor excuses for do-gooders, the supposed so-called protectors of the community?” He laughed manically. Instantly, his rage evaporated into a whimsical smile. His voice took on a sing-song cadence. “But you can’t, Jack, because in a few minutes, you’ll be a crispy critter. But I’ll be alive, watching her, waiting for her to make a mistake, just like her hotshot daddy did.”
He hummed an off-key tune, and with deliberate concentration, he drilled a hole in the base of the light bulb, dropped in gasoline from an eye dropper, taped it over, then screwed the light bulb into the socket and laid it in the acetone puddle. “You may believe you’re all perfect, but the truth is you’re not. You’ve made so many mistakes and have so many dead bodies heaped on your soul, Jack, I don’t know where to start.”
Helplessness gnawed at Jack’s gut. Once more he battled to free his hands, to save himself, to save Katie. The edge of the duct tape tore into his skin. Warm blood trickled down his cold fingers. He ignored the pain and the blood. He had to get the hell out of here. No matter what the cost. He had to save Katie from this maniac. And, if there was no other way, he’d bleed to death trying.
“I’m actually looking forward to Katie’s ego tripping her up, too. I have it all planned, you know. I’ve been working on it for a long time, every detail, every nuance.” He began to hum again, that same tuneless, nerve-wracking ditty. “And I must admit, with all due modesty, it is masterful.”
Rage, hot and searing, boiled up from the depths of Jack’s soul. “You son of a bitch! You hurt her and I’ll haunt you from my grave, you piece of shit.”
Shaking his head, the Chessman clucked his tongue and continued with his work. “Words. Just words. Impotent, Jack. Very impotent. Words won’t free you or save that bitch. It’s too late for that. You have no one to blame but yourself for her death. After all, you taught her all you know . . . or think you do, and you’re the one who screwed up. She has your genes, so it’s inevitable that she’ll follow in Daddy’s footsteps, and someone else will die unnecessarily—again.” Taking the plug end of the electrical cord, he inserted the prongs into the wall outlet.
Jack tensed for the explosion. None came. Of course not. Crazy this son of a bitch may be, but stupid he wasn’t. He must have turned off the electricity at the main breaker box.
“Both of you need to get what’s coming to you. I outsmarted you, and, if she gets too close, I’ll outsmart her, too . . . after I play with her head for a while.” His laughter echoed across the dirty concrete floor. Purposefully, he walked over to Jack and then slipped something into his uniform shirt pocket.
Jack knew what it was without seeing it. It was a chess piece, the crazy bastard’s signature, a token he had been leaving at all his arson scenes. The thing that had eventually led Jack to him.
Roughly, he shoved Jack onto his stomach and then leaned down close. “When the fire comes for you, Jack, make sure you keep your face to the floor. I want them to be able to recognize you and find my little token of . . . remembrance,” he whispered softly. “We want to give credit where credit’s due, right?” He leaned close, his warm, fetid breath against Jack’s ear. “You were smart enough to finger me. Let’s see if Katie can. It won’t be right away. I want to give her time to figure this out before it happens. When she’s sure she knows who I am . . . I’ll have another barbeque.”
Jack struggled to turn over, but with his hands and feet bound, he was as helpless as a turtle on its back. His jailer stomped on his back, pinning him to the warehouse floor. Rough concrete and dirt ground painfully into Jack’s cheek.
The Chessman stepped away. Jack stared helplessly at the tips of the bastard’s shoes. “I have to be going now, Jack. Some careless person turned off the main breaker box. But not to worry, I’ll fix that on my way out.” He paused. “Too bad you’ll never know who really toasted you.” Once more, he began to hum, and then closed the door solidly behind him.
Two floors down, in the warehouse’s maintenance office, I paused and checked out the main electric breaker box. “Let there be light,” and, with a rush of utter contentment, I threw the main breaker on. I listened for the roar of the fire beast coming to life on the floor above me.
Closing my eyes, I envisioned the flames crawling up the wall and inching across the ceiling. Soon the oxygen would be used up and the white-hot flames would feed on the carbon dioxide. If he hadn’t suffocated by then with the 800 to 1,000 degree air filling his throat, Jack Sullivan would burst into flames from thermal radiation and cook like the sinners in Pompeii, because that’s how sinners should go . . . burned in the fires of hell.
By the time I heard Jack’s horrific screams, I had reached the front door. I paused and listened for the conclusive stages of the rampaging flashover, then the last of the exhilarating human shrieks. My blood was pumping so furiously through my veins I could hear the echo in my ears. Satisfaction flowed through me like a cooling breeze after a hot day. But I knew it wasn’t gone for long. Not until the rest of them joined Jack Sullivan in hell would I know true release from my hellish torment.
Lighting a cigarette, I took a long drag, exhaled, and smiled. A good smoke after a fire had become as satisfying as the climax after sex to me. As I listened to the sound of burning timber crashing to the floor and ceilings giving way under the weight of the collapsing building, I finished the cigarette, threw the butt to the sidewalk, ground it out with my foot, and grinned
“One down. Three to go.”
Salt Run Publishing has brought back some of Elizabeth's reader favorites. (See covers at left) If you missed them the first time or would like to have the digital edition, you can find them here.