Tuesday 20 February 2024

Burn, Baby Burn by Maxine Flam, double espresso

‘Miller, Kelby, don’t get comfortable. In my office, now,’ bellowed John Jackson, their temporary boss. He was brought in from the Arson Squad to brief the unit on a string of suspicious fires that have grown in number and intensity across the city.

They began as garbage can fires which were attributed to juvenile males who got their kicks setting bins on fire. Then it graduated to fires in carports and garages. The fire department did their due diligence to try and identify how they were started but they came up inconclusive. After a string of those blazes, now empty warehouses have been set on fire. No rhyme or reason and in different parts of town. Miller and Kelby weren’t brought in until the last fire because a night watchman died. Now it’s a murder investigation. The first thing is to figure out is if all the fires were set by a gang of juveniles, a string of copycats, or is it much more sinister. Does the city have a pyromaniac on their hands? Or is it possible that each fire is separate and unrelated. It was time to consult the department psychiatrist, Dr. Delmonico.

‘Hello Bill, Joe, what can I do for you tonight?’ he said yawning due to lateness of the hour.

‘You did hear there have been several fires of unknown origin that were set throughout the city for the past several weeks. It’s been in the papers and on radio and TV. Well, it finally made it to the desk of the Major Case Squad because a night watchman was burned to death. No one has a clue how to proceed because we don’t know if it’s kids starting the fires to get the their kicks or someone who lit the small fires first to throw us off from what the real purpose was which were the warehouse fires,’ said Joe Miller.

‘Or maybe we have a psychopath on our hands. You think it could be someone out to collect the insurance on the buildings? Whoever did those was sloppy. The garbage and garage fires could have been covered up from Arson but not the warehouses. Someone dropped lit papers soaked in gasoline around the warehouses: What are we dealing with, Dr. Delmonico? A pyromaniac? Someone who gets their kicks off of watching things burn or could it be a bunch of juveniles getting their gang initiation?’ added Bill Kelby.

‘I hate to say it but I have a bad feeling about this one. My theory is the perpetrator is just one person who lights fires for thrills and attention, or possibly for money. May I ask who has called them in?’ replied Dr. Delmonico

‘A man,’ said Miller.

‘The same man or a different one every time?’

‘We haven’t checked,’ responded Kelby.

‘You need to get with someone that can do a voice print. That is a lead worth pursuing. If it is the same person, he could be doing it for kicks, and then this person has graduated in size and intensity. The arsonist needs more and more excitement so that why it means a bigger fire with each event. If he is a true pyromaniac, which I suspect is the case, he gets sexually excited watching things burn.’

Dr. Delmonico paused because what he was about to say was upsetting. ‘This type of perpetrator is often voyeuristic and may wait for the fire trucks to show up at the scene; sometimes he even calls them in himself and I say he because a high percentage of arsonists are male. Whoever is doing it might have a camera on him so he can photograph his handiwork. He takes pictures of the fires and the spectators at the scene so he can relive the experience again and again. Sometimes, the last person suspected is a first responder, and he could even be an off duty firefighter or one on duty who slips out for a bit to set the fire and then is back for the call. Then he can be a hero in attendance.’

            ‘But what about the night watchman that died?’ said Miller.

            ‘I’m sure that was accidental.’

            ‘What do we look for?’ said Kelby.

            ‘Before the building fire, I would have said a young male. But now…. I’m inclined to think it might be a firefighter, who gets off on setting and watching fires. That’s why he fights them. For the thrill! He probably suffers a variety of other mental problems including a hero’s complex. But you aren’t going to like what I really think.’

            ‘There’s more?’ inquired Miller.

            ‘He holds down a steady job. And if he’s a firefighter, he’s had a issue about fire since he was a kid.’

            ‘How could he be a firefighter? Wouldn’t he have an arrest record?’ inquired Kelby.

            ‘Not necessarily if he was very careful. He probably was never been picked up for starting fires. He probably set little fires when he was a kid. That’s where it started. He could have lived in a rural area and ran with a pack. As he grew up, he decided to get a job in the fire department. I mean how can you have your cake and eat it too. Be a fire fighter and enjoy watching things burn.’

            ‘What do you think triggered this string of recent fires?’ said Miller.

‘Hard to say…Maybe it was a death in the family, or a divorce or nothing. He just wanted to go back to a time where things were simpler. He reverted back to something that gave him pleasure and comfort and that was starting fires. Or maybe there is no trigger. And if he is a firefighter, God help us.’

            ‘You don’t have any recommendations, do you?’ said Kelby, hoping against hope that Dr. Delmonico had the answer.

            ‘I would start with the roster of firefighters off duty during the time when most of the recent fires occurred.’

            ‘The problem is it not one area. They are all over the city,’ said an exasperated Miller.

            ‘Sorry, but that is the best I can do for you. But pray you don’t have a pyromaniac for hire. Then you have the worst of all possible scenarios. He enjoys his work and he’s being paid for it.’


            ‘Joe, what are we going to do? Tell the Captain that Dr. Delmonico thinks one of our city’s finest is setting the fires.’

            ‘We better have something more than a hunch.’


‘Here’s a map of the city and it has been marked up with all the suspicious fires in the past six months,’ said Miller as he tacked up the map on the bulletin board.’

            ‘You got to be kidding. There’re that many fires.’

            ‘Yeah, TC is trash can and the date next to it. Then CG for carport/garage, and finally WH in a rectangular box for warehouse fire.’

            ‘Maybe we can draw a circle around it and see which firehouses are in the area.’

            Miller takes a red pencil with a ruler and finds there are four firehouses in the entire area.’

            ‘Now we have to narrow down who works there and look at their records. Come on, let’s go pull the records,’ said Kelby.

            ‘If the Fire Commissioner finds out we’re doing this, we’re dog meat,’ replied Miller.

            ‘Then why did they bring us in if they didn’t want to find out the truth,’ asked Kelby.

            ‘Sometimes they say they want to know but they really don’t,’ stated Miller.

            ‘Lovely,’ sighed Kelby.


‘I’m right under everyone’s nose. Such a laugh to watch everyone freak out. I light the fires, the fire department, our brave men in blue, yeah right, puts them out but they don’t have a freaking clue who’s behind it. They’re running around like a dog chasing its tail. I can’t believe how funny that is.’


Between the four firehouses, there were eighty possible full-timers, plus part-timers and fill-ins. There were also a handful of temporaries and support personnel: over one hundred suspects.

            ‘Well, go on,’ said Miller. ‘Let’s start looking at the personnel files. You might as well brew some fresh coffee. We’re going to be here awhile,’ replied Kelby.


They had been going through records for four hours when their boss flew through the door screaming, ‘What in the Sam Hill are you two doing?’

            ‘We’re pursuing leads. This is the only place we’ve looked so far, according to Dr. Delmonico,’ said Miller.

            ‘But one of our own? Are you nuts?’

            ‘We have to rule it out. Hey, you brought us into this after the death of the night watchman. You didn’t have any leads. Let’s rule this out and we’ll go in another direction,’ replied Kelby.

            ‘The Fire Commissioner is going to split a gut when he hears this.’

            ‘Don’t tell him. He doesn’t have to know. Only if we find something,’ said Miller. ‘Because…what if it is someone high-up like the Fire Commissioner or a Fire Captain.’

            ‘The two of you are nuts. I came to tell you, you have another fire for your board: a warehouse in the garment district. It went up twenty minutes ago. If you hurry, maybe you can put your theory to the test.’

            Their boss shook his head as Miller and Kelby grabbed their coats and flew out the door on their way to the current fire. A four alarm fire was increased by two more alarms after they got there. They were more interested in the crowd watching than the fire so Miller and Kelby split up and made their way through the people looking at everyone. There were the looky loos staring at the fire but nobody that fit the arsonist’s profile. There were some photojournalists taking pictures for the morning paper. Maybe one of them could be the arsonist? Is it possible they were barking up the wrong tree with firefighters?

            Miller told Kelby they needed to get all the papers from all the fires and see what the write ups said and if there was a common thread. They went back to the squad room and started pulling the newspapers. Were they covered by one journalist or a bunch of them? If it’s one, then they have a suspect and need to pursue him.

            They spent the night combing through the stacks of newspapers and came up empty.

            ‘I think we should go home, get some rest, and start again tomorrow,’ said Miller.


‘Another delicious fire. Ahhh…Burn baby burn,’ the arsonist said under his breath. ‘Now I’ll go back to my office and wait for the report of the fire to cross my desk. They’ll never figure out it’s the State Fire Commissioner that’s behind all these fires. They can go chase their tails and kiss my ass.’


The next morning, Kelby and Miller continued going through the fire station’s personal but they both got the feeling it was someone higher up the food chain.

            ‘I’d bet two weeks pay it’s a Captain or someone in the Commissioner’s office,’ said Miller.

            ‘I wouldn’t take the bet because I feel the same way. Maybe someone knows something but is keeping it quiet for fear of losing their job.’

            ‘No, I think it’s more involved than that. I think the guy works alone. Comes and goes as he pleases and looks like he’s inspecting the scenes of the fires or at least reviewing detailed reports and knows exactly what we know. He’s not stopping but he’s being cautious. No one could tell this guy anything but he knows everything. Now who’s in such a position?’

            ‘Well, the County Fire Commissioner, the City Fire Commissioner, and the State Fire Commissioner are the three top people who would know everything about every fire,’ resplied Kelby.

            ‘Then I think we need to concentrate our efforts on those three people. If we come up empty, then we’ll go back to looking at the four stations.  By the way, where do these Commissioners work and live? Are they in the fire zone?’

            ‘Let me check….Well, the State Commissioner and the City Commissioner live within the fire area.’

            ‘Then I think they are our two primary suspects,’ stated Miller.

            ‘And if we’re wrong, we’re the one whose ass will get chewed off if both of them are innocent,’ responded Kelby in a concerned tone of voice.

            ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained. We have to sniff around. It wouldn’t be the first time we lost our ass.’


‘Hey, you two, another fire at 4th and Pacific. Get a move on,’ yelled John Jackson.

            Kelby and Miller ran out of the squad room with pictures of their suspects. One or both would probably be at the fire but how could they tie either one to being the arsonist would be something else.


Miller and Kelby arrived at the scene. It was fully engulfed and instead of watching the fire like everyone else, they were looking at faces in the crowd. In the back was the State Fire Commissioner. Their hunch was right but that alone was no basis to arrest him. They needed evidence. Miller and Kelby followed him back to his black SUV. Miller pulled out his camera as he stood in the shadows and discretely took pictures as the State Commissioner sat there watching the fire with a big smile on his face. There had to be a way to get a search warrant. Their Captain wasn’t going to be pleased.


'That was a fantastic fire I set….And I made 50K in cash for it. I can’t believe how much I enjoy this job. The joy I receive from setting fires and being paid for it. I have almost a million in a tax free account in Geneva. It’s time to split this town and enjoy my life. At 50 years old, I have a lot of living to do. Only one more job and I resign my Commission and I’m off to Switzerland for the rest of my life. I’m set with money and with money come women. This one will be my coup de grace. Burn, baby, burn.’


'On this alone, I can’t issue a search warrant. It’s circumstantial. Stake him out and hope that he makes a mistake,’ said Captain Jackson.

            Miller and Kelby went back to their desks preparing to stake out the State Fire Commissioner’s house, 24/7, until he makes a mistake. What did Dr. Delmonico say? The worst of all possible scenarios: a pyromaniac who gets paid?


Three days into the stake out, the State Fire Commissioner went out at 9 p.m. Kelby and Miller followed at a discreet distance back to the warehouse district. Kelby had the camera out taking pictures. They followed him all the way to the end of the pier. Miller shut the lights off as he rolled the SUV closer. The State Fire Commissioner got out of his SUV carrying a can of gasoline and a bunch of newspapers. Miller rolled the car under a light near the end of the pier while Kelby snapped the camera conituoulsy only stopping long enough to change the film. He got some beautiful telephoto close-ups of him going into the warehouse and coming out, minutes later with him driving off and the warehouse going up in flames. Miller picked up the microphone and called in the fire. The State Fire Commissioner drove around the corner, keeping his lights off, and the news crews and firefighters pulled up.

            Miller turned the SUV around and headed back to the station. He got the photos developed and sure enough there was enough evidence to issue a warrant.

            ‘This is one warrant I’m going to enjoy serving,’ said Kelby to Miller.

            ‘Me too. He took one too many bites of the apple.’


The State Fire Commissioner went home, showered, changed, and went to a party at the Lt. Governor’s house.

            Miller caught him leaving and the two of them followed him to the house of the Lt. Governor.

            ‘You can have the honor of knocking,’ said Miller to Kelby.

            Knock Knock.

            The butler came to the door. ‘Yes, may I help you?’

            ‘We’re here to see the State Fire Commissioner,’ replied Miller.

They waited at the door until he came to see who wanted him.

            ‘Yes, what do you want?’

            ‘We have a warrant for your arrest for Arson. You have the right to remain silent,…’ stated Miller.

            ‘This is an outrage….you have the wrong person.’

            ‘I don’t think so,’ said Kelby.

            ‘You took too many bites of the apple, sir. We have you on film setting tonight’s warehouse fire,’ said Miller.

            He dropped to his knees while the police were handcuffing him. ‘NO… NO… NO…this can’t be happening. I had it all planned.’

            Miller looked at Kelby and said, ‘You know what they say about plans.’

            ‘No what?’ said Kelby.

            ‘The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry adapted from a line in ‘To a Mouse,’ by Robert Burns. His exact words are ‘No matter how carefully a project is planned, something may still go wrong with it,’’ stated Miller.

            ‘I guess he didn’t read Burns….’ replied Kelby.

            ‘His loss.’         


About the auhtor 

Since becoming disabled in 2015, Maxine took up her passion for writing. She has been published several times in the Los Angeles Daily News, The Epoch Times, Nail Polish Stories, DarkWinterLit, BrightFlashLiteraryReview, OtherwiseEngagedLit, CafeLit, and Maudlin House.



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