By Geonn Cannon
Slowly, Sadly, Lonely
Martin Lancaster had a perfect view of Shepherd outside his office window. Night had fallen and most of his employees had gone home. Some of them had families and others might even have night jobs... the majority of them were married, either to a person or to some vice. He wasn't sure what they did outside these walls and he didn't pretend to care. His secretary had stopped by to see if he needed anything else before she left and he had sent her away. He knew she was widowed and had two grown kids; he'd seen their pictures on her desk and knew them only as Ugly Boy and Slutty Girl. Their real names were useless to him.
He was taking the night off, a well-deserved rest from the exhausting work of setting fires. As much as he hated to admit it, he was becoming disillusioned. What good was it if the fires didn't work? The firefighters were pretty much in the same position they were before, minus one stinking probie. For all he knew, that kid was meant to die in a fire anyway. He couldn't claim that one with any sense of pride. It was like bragging about stepping on a spider. No thrill, no skill, no guts.
The city was quiet tonight. He wondered if there would be any legitimate fires tonight... perhaps another arsonist would come to his aid. It wasn't like he held the monopoly on setting blazes. If someone else joined in the fun, well, it would be all the more fun, wouldn't it? Turn that damn investigator on his ass trying to catch two birds with one net or something like that.
He sipped his vodka and grimaced. It had been his father's drink and he'd never seen the appeal. But his image of a CEO, the mental picture of the man behind this desk, always included a tumbler of alcohol, almost always vodka. So he kept up the tradition.
The vodka was a salute to his grandfather, a Russian immigrant who had come to this country and promptly been beaten and robbed in an alley. He'd survived, but only just barely. When he was up and about once more, he sold most of the family's meager possession and used it to buy the building flanking the alley where he'd been robbed of his dignity. Anatoly Laenko became Anthony Lancaster. Everyone in the family had a traditional Russian name to go with their American name. Behind closed doors, they called the bland American monikers their 'code names.' Maksim Laenko, the only son of Anatoliy's only son Artur, was Martin Lancaster to the rest of the world.
Anatoly had taken the one building and transformed it into two. He refurbished the buildings, made them sparkle and then sold them both for a profit. He sent Artur to college to become an architect, all the while building the family fortune in anticipation of the day Artur would take over for him.
When Anatoly was eighty, his son came to him with a diploma and a plan. He turned his father's business into Lancaster Designs. Martin had been in the office, buried in the fluffy cushions of his grandfather's couch, watching as Artur put an arm around his own father and motioned at the windows. "America tried to take you away, Father. Together, we shall take this single, small town and we will make it ours."
Artur took over the company, demonstrating a keen eye for the business side of things as well as for the design aspect. He took the reins of the company after his father died, immediately beginning to shape Martin to take his place. With Artur in charge, the company's profits took off, his name gracing the front page of local papers, his face appearing in all of the business magazines. But as his fame grew, so did his depression. Arthur Lancaster was the bright boy of business, the millionaire that everyone was scrambling to hire. Artur Laenko was a hidden man, a cipher hiding in the shadows.
Maksim, known as Martin to his schoolmates, was dragged to the office and forced to sit through hours of board meetings and business lunches when he should have been out on his own, being a boy. As much as he hated his father for stealing his childhood, he also started to become a carbon-copy of the man. All outside influence was overwritten by his father's 'lessons.'
One night, looking over a blueprint and well into his bottle of vodka, his father had gestured at the building on the paper. "She is waiting to be born, Maksim. Buildings, they breathe... and when they are left, forgotten... they die. They die slowly, sadly, lonely."
Martin had never been able to get the image out of his mind. His first fire had been an accident, an expedition into one of his father's empty designs to look at the empty offices. He'd kicked over his lantern by accident and watched in horror as the gas spread in a wide pool. He had run away, hiding and watching when the firefighters showed up. That night, the building had been on the news and a reporter had come by the apartment to speak with his father.
When they left, Artur had clapped his son on the back and said, "That is one building that lives again, eh, Maksim?"
He had only nodded, amazed at what he had accomplished.
Although amazing, he had never attempted to repeat the act even after his father's death and his subsequent inheritance of the company. Burning a building was exhilarating, but it was also dangerous. But when he met Alexandra Crawford, something had clicked in his mind. Firefighters rushed into burning buildings put their lives on the line. If they were to sacrifice themselves, the building would live on in the minds of others.
His first intention had been to approach Crawford as an accomplice. After all, if anyone knew about burning a building and getting away with it... but she had proven to be far too noble for that. He continued to request her for his inspections, deeply in lust with her by that time. Of course, that was nothing more than an empty dream now.
He pinched his lips around a mouthful of vodka. That doctor... it was unnatural what they were doing. He was furious with himself for wasting so much time with Alex. He'd been wasting time with everything lately, it seemed. He was irritated with how slow he'd been in realizing that. Planning one building at a time, trying to eliminate random firefighters. The trick would be to target specific sacrifices. Alex Crawford would be the first to fall.
Correction, he thought, finishing off his bottle and smirking at his reflection in the window. Rachel Tom would be the first to die. But Alex would follow very soon thereafter.
The fire marshal's office was adjacent to the police station, basically a lean-to wedged between the garage and the main building. It was dwarfed by the buildings on either side, hunkering in their shadows as if trying to go unnoticed. Alex parked her Jeep in the visitor's lot and walked around the side of the building to avoid meeting any officers. She had no problem with the police, knew they performed an invaluable service just like the fire department. But on slow days the rivalry between departments became the sole source of entertainment for some people.
She restrained a groan when she saw two uniforms heading her way across the lawn, grinning when they recognized her. "Hey, Sparky!" one said. It was the police department's name for every firefighter in town.
"Hiya, Officer Fife," she replied. Fife was the fire department nickname for any and all cops. Another popular nickname was "Officer Keystone." She was just glad there'd never been a slapstick comedy about firefighters.
The cop was unphased by the Don Knotts reference. "Are you playing in the softball tournament this year? Always interested in adding some eye candy to the bases."
She rolled her eyes as they crossed paths and said, "Mm, not this year, Barney."
"Come on, Sparky! It's for sick kids!"
She smiled and shrugged her shoulders, continuing on to Von Elm's office. She knocked on the outside door and slid into the cluttered one-room extension. It seemed like more a paper storage room than actual office, with cardboard boxes and mountains of paper on every horizontal surface. Von Elm was in the center of it all and looked up as she came in. He waved her into the office and said, "Have a seat. You didn't come through the building?"
"I went around back because I wanted to avoid as many cops as possible... no offense."
He laughed and shook his head. "Ah, none taken. When you straddle the line between policeman and fireman, you find it difficult to side with one or the other. Unless one of them happens to be in the room with you." He stood and gestured at the coffee maker.
She smiled and said, "A cop with the cops and a firefighter with us. What are you when you're at home with your wife?"
"Casanova," he said. He winked and stood up. He gestured at the coffee maker and said, "Anything to drink?"
"No, I'm fine."
He poured a cup for himself and sipped it before he retook his seat. "I got my reports on those fires you and Leary were asking about. Without a doubt, all three were arsons. Guy wasn't even trying to cover his tracks."
Alex leaned forward and took three of the files from the top stack of his desk. "So you're thinking it was the same guy all three times?"
"Pretty sure. Had a lot of the same characteristics. He liked to build little bonfires, pour gas all over them. Didn't worry too much about leaving a trail of accelerant, neither." He motioned for the file she was looking at and she handed it back. "Have you seen the building Wayne Murray and Heather Riley were in yet?"
"This is killer." He leaned forward and framed a square with his hands. "The guy, this arsonist, cuts the rafters to weaken the roof, right? If Murray and Riley had fallen here, here or here," he pointed to different portions of the roof on the schematic, "they would have hit the top floor. Cement, reinforced, they'd be dead or paralyzed. And if they were paralyzed..."
"They would've burned to death."
"Precisely. But since they fell where they did..." He showed her another series of photographs. "The building originally had an open-air lobby. All three floors looked out over it, so it was a wide-open space. When they fell, they landed on a huge pile of furniture the tenants left behind and the scroungers hadn't gotten to yet."
Alex frowned. "Why did a warehouse have a lobby?"
"It wasn't a warehouse," he said. "More like a factory. They made, as far as I can tell, a lot of empty boxes."
Alex leaned back in her chair. "So it's not just abandoned warehouses anymore. It's pretty much any building designed by Lancaster."
"Or his father," Von Elm pointed out. "Did some reading up on that family. Weird stuff... did you know they all have two names?"
"What do you mean?"
"Russian and English both. Our friend Martin is known at home as Maksim Laenko. Martin is his 'public name.' Lady I spoke to said he got bent outta shape if you tried to call him 'Marty.'"
She nodded. "Yeah, we saw that when we were at his office."
"Oh, yeah, the handshake thing," Von Elm said. "He did get a little perturbed, didn't he?"
"He was pissed," Alex corrected. "Maybe something you ought to keep in mind if you have to interrogate him about something."
Von Elm smirked. "I like the way you think. Keep 'im on edge, make him angry."
"Getting back to the buildings... Have you found any more traps in the latest buildings other than the cut rafters?"
"You mean more flashover rooms like the ones that hurt Jones and Wizell? No, none of the rooms in the third building showed signs of that. I looked over the room that killed Jones, by the way. It was hugely bad. Was anyone in there with him? Like a partner or something? You guys do that two-in, two-out arrangement, right?"
Alex felt her back tense. "Yes, there was someone in with him," she said flatly. "Why? Are they responsible for what happened?"
Von Elm shrugged. "Maybe. I mean, the signs of flashover are obvious. But you can get distracted in a fire and you miss what was obvious in training. I was asking more because this report said another firefighter went in behind Jones. I was wondering how the hell that person managed to survive. Seems impossible to me."
"Me too," Alex said softly. She tapped the files against her thigh and then held them up. "Do you mind if I take these?"
"No, they're copies anyway. I have a couple more in the cabinet over there." He nodded at the opposite end of the room and then looked down at his desk. "Or... here. Ah, they're somewhere."
"Okay. Thanks, Bill."
"No problem, Alex. And by the way?" She turned around. "You Sparkys have more class than a roomful of Barneys."
Alex grinned and saluted him before she left.
Heather Riley sat on the exam bed, waiting as Rachel updated her chart. "Okay. That should take care of you for the time being. You can come back in for a check-up in a month or so, just to make sure everything is still going well. You may experience headaches, stomach ache, breast tenderness, vaginal spotting of blood and dizziness... and your monthly visitor might not show up on the right date." She closed the file and said, "I'd really feel better sending this over to your regular physician..."
"But I appreciate you keeping it quiet, Dr. Tom."
"I don't like being a party to covering up an affair," Rachel said. She rose from her stool and walked across the exam room. "But you're my patient and as much as it irritates me... I couldn't say anything without your permission."
Bugs smiled ruefully. "Well, to be honest, Doctor, you can't exactly know what I'm going through here."
Rachel frowned and leaned against the counter. "How so?"
"Well... you know, you and Crawford don't exactly... I mean, the problem of contraceptives isn't really high on your list of things to worry about."
"I may not understand an unwanted pregnancy, but I do understand monogamy. What you did to your poor fiancé... I can't even begin to imagine what that man is going through. Or what he would be going through, if he found out about this."
"You're forgetting that *he* can't imagine what *I* went through, Dr. Tom. Murray held me as we went through hell. I may have taken a ring from someone else, but Wayne Murray understands me in a way someone outside the department never could." She glanced at the window and hesitated, as if debating whether or not to say the next bit. Finally, she said, "And I'm sorry, but unless you and Alex are fooling yourselves, you should admit you're in the same boat."
"I understand Alex," Rachel said. She kicked herself as soon as she said it. She sounded defensive even to herself.
Bugs shook her head. "Not the way another firefighter could. It's like we're soldiers and, when we come home, everyone pretends to know what it was like on the battlefield. But no one can. Not unless they were there with their life on the line."
Rachel checked her watch and said, "I have another patient, so if you're done theorizing..."
Bugs gathered her jacket and slipped off the table. "I'm not saying you don't love each other. I still love my fiancé. I'm just saying that you need to either admit that you'll never entirely understand one another or end it now before anyone gets hurt."
Rachel said nothing, holding the door as Bugs stepped outside. She followed her into the corridor and watched as she waited for the elevator. Her mind flashed back, reminding her of the moment etched in her memory... the way they'd hunkered down in a closet, the way her sister's face hovered over her like a ghost in the darkness. She remembered the insane heat, the almost unbearable heat as her back blistered and scarred.
She remembered the process of debridement, a fancy word for the torture she'd gone through. She had wept, lying face-down on the table while nurses peeled away layers of dead skin. The long soaks in the tub, the unbelievable pain... she had always thought pain ended when the fire was out, had never dreamt it continued for so long afterward.
The woman who held her hand during the procedure was named Nancy. She had dark hair and lips so red. When she was discharged from the hospital, it was Nancy who pushed her wheelchair out to the parking lot. Sitting on the curb with the nurse, her back numb and foreign under her sweater, she had hugged Nancy and thanked her. They both cried, Nancy saying she was sorry for Rachel's sister. Years later, Rachel would pinpoint that as the moment she decided to become a doctor.
As Bugs stepped into the elevator, Rachel snapped out of her reverie and said, "Alex and I understand each other. We understand better than you'll ever know, Ms. Riley." She looked down at her watch again and headed off to meet with her next patient.
Alex sat in the den and read Von Elm's files on the arsons. Gasoline used in all of the blazes, used to ignite piles and piles of junk. All of the buildings were abandoned, which, in that section of town, was hardly surprising. As she read, Wizell and Sawyer walked in, talking about some game. Sawyer carried with him a constant cloud of cigar smoke, a trait that never failed to remind her of her father. "Hey, guys."
"Are you watching the Seahawks game?" Sawyer asked.
Alex looked at the dark television set, looked at Sawyer and then replied, "Take a wild guess, Will."
"Mind if I..."
"Go right ahead," she told him and went back to her reading.
Sawyer grabbed the remote and dropped onto the couch next to Murray. He lifted his boot and rested it on the edge of the table. He made sure whatever game he wanted to watch was on a commercial before he looked over at her. "What're you reading?"
"Some of the fire marshal's reports on these arsons."
"Does he think they're related?" Murray asked.
"Hot damn," Sawyer said. "Fire bug, right here in our own damn town. Tell you what we oughta do with these arsonists is just tie up their hands and legs and just toss them into the next big fire we have. Give 'em a taste of what they want." He sipped his soda and saw that the game was coming back, the leader board revealing that the Seattle Seahawks were leading. "Aw, kick ass!" he said, scooting forward and leaning towards the TV.
Murray nodded at Alex, trying to get her attention. He dropped his voice and said, "So, uh... everything... taken care of?"
"Yeah, it's all good last I heard."
Murray exhaled and said, "Look, you know that I didn't..."
"It's all good," Alex interrupted. She motioned at Sawyer with her head, even though he was still engrossed with the football game on TV.
Murray smirked and said, "Hey, I slept with Bugs last night. It was a mistake, so Crawford's doctor girlfriend helped smooth things over for me."
Sawyer took a sip of his drink.
Turning back to Alex, Murray said, "He's like Rain Man and Judge Wapner with the Seahawks, man. Turn on a game and he turns into, like, a brain-damaged monkey."
Sawyer slapped Murray on the back of the head. "It went to commercial, numb-nuts. And if you had five hundred bucks riding on this game, you'd be a little hypnotized, too."
Alex grinned and turned her attention back to the files on her lap. There had to be a way to connect Lancaster to the fires other than just the fact that he designed them. It was circumstantial at best and any defense attorney would destroy it before they got within spitting distance of a court room. The fact that Lancaster had brought the information to them himself made it look even more ridiculous.
She yawned and rearranged herself on the cushions. It was going to be a long night and she planned to stay awake long enough to find any hint that they were on the right trail.
Martin walked into his dark apartment to the music of a ringing phone. Dumping his briefcase and coat, he grabbed the phone and said, "Lancaster."
His secretary began speaking rapidly, out of breath and whispering. "Mr. Lancaster, that fire marshal is here again. He wants to talk to you about..."
"I know what he wants to talk about, Sandra. It's why I'm not there. Just tell him that I'm out for the day... hell, for the rest of the week. I don't wish to be disturbed until next Monday. Tell him that; I'm sure he'd understand."
"But Mr. Lancaster, he's like the police..."
"I know that, dear. But at the moment, I'm merely someone who... interests Mr. Von Elm. He can't drag me in without accusing me of a crime. So, for the moment, I am incommunicado. Whatever he wishes to speak with me about will keep until Monday."
"Yes, Mr. Lancaster."
He hung up on her, loosening his tie and groaning wearily. He name Martin Lancaster grated on him; the ups and downs of the business world, the posturing and the grand-standing, all that unsightly carrying on... he didn't know how his father had done it. He walked through the apartment, shedding his Oxford shirt and tie and standing bare-chested in front of the picture window in his living room.
Shepherd was a small town and it was his. The Lancaster name stood proudly on dozens of buildings in the small burg that surrounded him. But none of them were Laenko. He felt a deep regret that his grandfather's name would soon be forgotten, a footnote in the family history books. Towards the end, he remembered his father responding more and more to the name Arthur, his correspondence arriving addressed to Arthur Lancaster rather than his traditional name.
The old man had grown weak in his later years. It still saddened him to remember his father's steady decline into dementia. It was never easy to watch a family member succumb to such a nasty disease.
With the lights still off, he walked across the room and looked at the city map he had pinned to the work table. Tonight, he was going to go off his routine. Tonight, he would not only burn a building that was still thriving, his target would be another's design. He hated that; it would be the same as setting fire to someone else's child. Maksim Laenko was many things, but a murderer?
Yes, after tonight, he would be. Without a doubt.
He dressed slowly, picking his clothing carefully. He would need the maximum protection from the heat he would be experiencing. He had an oxygen mask, a hood and gloves... It was another departure for him; he would be remaining in this fire. It was his piece-de-resistance, the final piece of his little puzzle.
He put everything he needed to carry into a duffel bag and slung it over his shoulder. He stepped into the corridor wearing his ratty sweatshirt and jeans. Martin Lancaster was still in the apartment; tonight, Maksim Laenko was being released from his prison. An unfair incarceration, lasting his entire life and ending tonight. He could almost feel his tongue adapting, wrapping around its natural accent.
Yes, tonight would be different. Tonight was the final piece.
Let Von Elm come and ask his questions whenever he wanted. After tonight, Martin Lancaster, Rachel Tom and Alexandra Crawford would all be dead.
Alex was forced to put down Von Elm's reports when the alarms started just before midnight, following Sawyer and Murray to their trucks. Sawyer whooped out that he hoped Murray didn't choke on his fumes when he left him in the dust. Wizell settled into his seat in the front of the cab and complained that Holt had left the seat all sweaty. He swore to never leave the company again, which was greeted with a groan from everyone riding with him.
Alex was strapping her helmet in place as the radio blurted out the fire location. She spun in her seat and stared wide-eyed at the radio. She had to have heard wrong. "What did they just say?" she said, shouting to be heard over the engines and Murray's whooping.
"Spring Creek Apartments," Wizell told her. "Shee-it, I've been there. The alleys are thin as hell on either side. Tons of cars on either side of the street... this is gonna be a goddamn nightmare."
Alex didn't need Wizell's commentary on the streets around Spring Creek Apartments. She remembered it very clearly from a few nights before. It was Rachel's building.
To be continued in Chapter Fourteen
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