Heat Wave: Dry Tinder

Helix

The first thing I noticed about the room was how cluttered it was.

Now, it wasn’t a mess like my desk is. There was clearly some kind of a system at work in all the piles of newspapers, computer printouts, maps, sticky notes and sundry other office supplies that seemed to cover every available surface in the apartment’s main room. But whatever was going on there, it wasn’t something that was evident to the casual observer. It looked like a giant scrapbook had exploded in the middle of the room and someone had just shoved the resulting mess into piles.

The guy who had let us in looked more like a computer repairman than a scrapbooker, though. He was fingering the warrant Bob Sanders had given him suspiciously, like he thought it might be a fake. “Nice place you got here,” I said as I headed towards the back of the flat. “Anyone else home?”

“No, I live here alone. Can I ask what this is all about?”

“Relax Mr. Mosburger,” Sanders said, waving me on to check out the rest of the apartment, “we’re just here to ask you a few questions.”

“About what?” Mosburger demanded. “I haven’t done anything illegal!”

“Not exactly illegal, no. But you’ve purchased a considerable amount of fire suppressant chemicals in the last few days and the city is in the middle of a two month serial arson case,” Sanders said, clearly trying to sound reasonable. “You can understand why we might be interested in that, can’t you? Is there something we should know?”

When it comes to questioning people Sanders is pretty smooth, much better than I am. It’s one of the reasons why we’re on the same team. I tuned them out and focused on searching the kitchen. Nothing of interest there, and it didn’t look like any of the scrapbooking materials had migrated out this far. I checked out the window on the fire escape too, just to be thorough. As I suspected, there wasn’t anything out there either.

Mona Templeton was emerging from the bedroom door in the other corner of the main room as I stepped in from the kitchen. She gave a slight shake of her head to let me know she hadn’t found anything very interesting either, then went back to stand by the door with Jack Howell. I turned up my Sanders filter and began looking over Mosburger’s scrapbooking efforts.

It was pretty interesting, really, especially to someone like me who’s technically a part of the FBI. It looked like he had been collecting newspaper clippings on similar crimes from the local newspapers, the paper from the state capitol, plus a few local news feeds and local gossip. It’d be impressive, if it wasn’t so disturbing. I wondered exactly what he did with it all.

The largest stack of recent clippings looked like they all dealt with the string of arsons Sanders had mentioned. I picked up the top clipping only to find that it was taped to the next and the next. It looked like pushpins had been stuck through the paper in some places. There was a corkboard near the desk and I took the stack over to it. There were plenty of pushpins to stick through the holes, in fact more than was really needed just to hold the selection of clippings to the board. I realized as I pushed the pins in that they didn’t just hold the clippings up, if I were to fill in all the holes there would be a pin by the name and address of each of the arson victims.

“Hey Jack,” I called. “Come look at this.”

Mosburger noticed what I was looking at and his expression clouded up. “What are you doing?”

“Searching your apartment, like the warrant says,” I replied. Jack came over and peeked at the clippings. “Do you see what I see, Jack?”

“Looks like someone’s been admiring our arsonist’s handiwork,” Jack said. “Maybe even keeping a record of his own achievements.”

Mosburger grit his teeth. “That makes no sense. If I was your serial arsonist, why would you have come here because of my purchasing fire suppressants?”

“You need the one to make the other safe.” I tapped the name of the first victim in one of the articles. “Alexis Moreau says she saw someone matching your description lurking near her place three nights ago.”

“If she saw me at night what makes you so sure it was me?” Mosburger asked.

“We’re really not,” Sanders said. “But you were tentatively identified by a cop who responded to the fire at Peter Morrison’s. You shouldn’t have stopped by the convenience store just a block away, but pretending to be a journalist and asking a beat cop for details was really pushing it too far. Most of the boys on the beat know the reporters they’ll be dealing with. Not that checking out your phony name was that hard.”

“Believe it or not, that’s enough for a warrant, given how bad people want to catch our man right now,” Jack said. “And here we are. So, would you care to take another go at explaining all this?”

“And don’t tell us you’re writing a book. You wouldn’t believe how many times we hear that,” I added, still sifting through the piles of paper.

Mosburger sighed. “Fine. I’m not a journalist and I’m not writing a book. But I’m not the arsonist either. I bought the fire extinguishers because I’m worried that I might be the next person he targeted.”

“Alright,” Sanders said, carefully considering his words. We hear a lot of strange things when dealing with serial crimes, and someone getting the idea in their head that they’re the next victim is just as common as some of the other loopy things we hear, but it’s particularly tricky. The person could always be right. “Why don’t we head back to the office and you can tell us exactly why you think that-”

“No, no, no, don’t patronize me, Agent Sanders,” Mosburger said, clearly annoyed. “I know it doesn’t sound very plausible but-”

This time I cut him off, handing Sanders another collection of clippings. I saw his eyebrows rising as he looked at the headlines. “All right Mr. Mosburger, there’s no need to get upset,” I said. “If you want you can tell us here. Why do you think you’ll be the next victim?”

He was clearly a bit surprised at my attitude, although he was also trying to divide his attention between talking to me and watching one of his other miniature scrapbooks pass through the hands of the three others on my team.  His head swung between me and the rest like the weight on a clock. “I… uh, well, it’s kind of complicated.”

“I work for the FBI, buddy. Complicated is our everyday.”

Suddenly the others were forgotten and Mosburger’s attention was squarely on me. “Speaking of which, I can’t help but wonder why you guys are even working this case. Arson isn’t usually your beat, is it? Or do you think this is terrorism?”

“I hate to be cliché, but I’m asking the questions here,” I said. Then I gestured to the subject at hand, his news clippings of the arsons. “What do you see here that makes you think you’re the next victim?”

Mosburger sighed. “It starts with their names.”

“Their last names all start with the letter ‘M’. We noticed that,” I said. “But that’s an awfully vague connection, don’t you think?”

“Undoubtedly.” Mosburger collected some thumbtacks and began pushing them into the clippings I’d started on, using one color for each different kind of data. “But look at this: Paul Moreau was the first victim. He lived at 1457 Ferntress, and his house caught fire sometime around three in the afternoon two and a half weeks ago. Amelia Morgan lived in apartment 812 of her complex, the fire alarm there went off at 8:22, shortly after she left for work that morning. Similar patterns appear in the other three fires reported.”

I felt my brows creasing as I tried to work it out. Finally I shook my head and said, “OK, I give up. What patterns?”

Mosburger snorted and pointed to each piece of information again. “1457 Fentress. Paul Moreau’s initials are PM. That’s 2:57 PM in military time. If you give the fire about ten minutes to propagate after it was set, that would be about the time the arsonist touched it off. Amelia Morgan, apartment 812-”

“8:12 AM,” I finished, as realization dawned. “Peter Morrison of 1734 Rothman Lane, who’s house was seen burning at about a quarter to four in the afternoon. Pritchard Mosburger, in apartment 1322.”

As if by unspoken agreement, we both checked our watches. It was five minutes ‘til one. I grabbed the radio from my belt and called our backup squad downstairs. “Bergstrum, check for an open circuit. I repeat, check for an open circuit. Over.”

Mosburger did a double take, looking from me to the news clippings and back again. “Check for a what?”

There was a sudden flurry of activity as Jack, Mona and Sanders sprang into action, Jack and Sanders moving out into the hall together as Mona carefully closed the door behind them. “Wait,” Mosburger said, suddenly alarmed. “Where are they going?”

“To make sure our arsonist isn’t sneaking up on us,” Mona replied. “And if he’s coming up the stairs to torch your place it’d be a perfect time grab him.”

“No, you don’t understand,” Mosburger replied frantically, “that guy is not your usual kind of dangerous. I checked up on each of the arson sites. There’s no sign of what he’s been using to set the fires, right?”

“The police don’t know,” I confirmed. “I suppose you’ve figured that out, too?”

“I think I know,” he said, “but it’s hard to explain and they don’t really have time…”

My radio crackled again, cutting him off. “Bergstrum here. We got problems. Security footage shows a man none of the guards recognize coming in six minutes ago. Over.”

“Templeton,” Mona said, talking into her own radio. “What are the odds the building rent-a-cop just doesn’t recognize him? Over.”

“Kesselman,” a new voice answered. “Whatever the odds you were about to give, forget it. The stairwell door has been forced, someone went through it who doesn’t have a building key, same as in the last apartment arson. Over.”

“Snap decision, Mona.” I waved at the papers Mosburger had collected. “You’re the expert; do you think it’s worth saving?”

“No,” Mona replied instantly. “There’s nothing here he couldn’t put together later, and I’m more interested in talking more about–”

“Talk about it with him,” I said, grabbing Mosburger by the arm and hustling him towards the kitchen. “But do it later. For now, I think it’s time to abscond with the goods.”

“Wait,” Mosburger said. “Your guys in the hall–”

“Are doing their job,” I finished. “They know the risks and can do their jobs. You, on the other hand, are a complete novice who shows potential. If you’re still alive in eight hours maybe we’ll talk about getting you briefed on a few things. Maybe even offer you a job.”

There was a lot of clattering as we stumbled through the kitchen, Mosburger was clearly not good at multitasking. I would have preferred it if he had paid more attention to where he was going and less to telling me how to do my job, but that’s admittedly not the way the general public usually deals with law enforcement.

“Look, Agent… I didn’t get your name.”

“No,” I confirmed. “You did not. Can this wait?”

“Fine, be mysterious,” Mosburger said as I hustled him onto the fire escape. “But you don’t seem to realize that this arsonist isn’t setting chemical fires, he’s starting electrical fires.”

I stopped in the process of climbing out onto the fire escape myself, one foot on the windowsill. “To be perfectly honest, Mr. Mosburger, I’d love to hear how you arrived at that conclusion. But later. We’re pretty sure we know what this guy is doing, and electricity isn’t involved. What makes you they’re electrical fires, anyway?”

For a moment, in spite of the fact that we were thirteen floors of the ground with me halfway through a window and Mona two steps behind us, waiting for her turn, Mosburger managed to look and sound more like a surprised college professor than a man with a strange scrapbooking hobby.

“Do you even know what I do for a living?” He asked.

“No,” I said gamely, “that’s usually Sanders’ department.” I finished climbing out onto the fire escape and looked down. For most people that would be a problem, but I’ve always been pretty good with heights. It didn’t look like there was anyone down in the courtyard below at the moment, so I helped Mona through the window then said as an aside to Mosburger, “I’m usually the muscle.”

He raised a skeptical eyebrow, distracted from his line of thought by the idea of a man of a standing no taller than five foot three and weighing maybe one thirty in wet clothes claiming to be muscle. Since my evil plan had succeeded and he had stopped talking I told Mona, “Take him down to the ground in one piece. We’ll try to–”

I’m not really sure what we were going to try and do but as it turns out it didn’t really matter. Gunshots from inside the apartment sent me scrabbling back through the window while Mona tried to convince a still-protesting Pritchard Mosburger down the fire escape.

Now when a guy has already essentially proven his ability to find patterns we’ve missed, you might think me stupid for ignoring what he’d been trying to tell me for the last several minutes. And you’d probably be right. But in this case, I had a unique perspective. I knew how our firebug was lighting things off; you might say that fire is something of a specialty of mine, just like patters were obviously one of Mosburger’s. You wouldn’t be a hundred percent accurate but it’s close enough for most purposes.

Sanders and Jack piled back into the main room, abandoning the hallway at the same time I was running in from the kitchen. Both men were sweating profusely and Jack’s gun was missing. A moment later a loud series of bangs started in the hallway.

“Cooked your gun?” I asked.

Jack nodded. “He’s three doors down the hall, thrown up a sheet hot enough that it causes blisters almost instantly.” He held up his red and swelling right hand to prove his point. “That guy has obviously been working his talent.”

“Did you get a good look at him?” I asked. Both Jack and Sanders shook their heads.

Sanders wiped the sweat out of his eyes on his shirt sleeve, then poked his head out the door. By the time he pulled it in again his dark skin was glistening again. “Hallway’s still clear. Call it, Helix, do you think you can stop him without burning the place down?”

“I dunno, Sanders. It’ll be a tossup at first.” I leaned my head against the wall and felt the heat on the other side. Lots of people say that heat rises, but I don’t suppose they’ve ever thought about where it rises from. After all, what goes up must come down, right? Modern science has a principle that explains why heat spreads out. The eggheads tell me it’s called entropy. But for every action there’s an opposite reaction, and I call that a heat sink.

Someone had built a real whopper of a sink out in the hall. The heat there was pooling deep and overflowing its banks in angry red waves, only to run back down into the sink time and again. I looked over at Sanders. “I haven’t seen a heat sink that good since my grandma was alive. I think I can eventually cut him out and take the heat, but I’ll have to get close and it’ll take time.”

“I don’t like that. It could go anywhere while you’re fighting over it.” Sanders glanced out the door again. “Can you use your fancy heat sense thingy to tell what part of the building he’s in?”

“No,” I said. “The air temperature in the building is too erratic for me to tell what’s him and what’s just a pocket of cool air caught in some kind of eddy.”

“Just heard from Kesselman,” Jack added, “he says the door to this floor has been melted shut.”

That wasn’t good. And not just because it meant Kesselman and the other half of our team couldn’t get to us. It meant our man could sink enough heat to melt a steel door, and that took serious talent.

“All right, boys, it’s time to start taking this seriously,” I said. “He’s a heat sink and a good one. Is the building evacuated?”

“No one’s sure,” Sanders answered, “but I’d say it’s as close as it’s gonna get. Bergstrum says the security guards think about half the people who live here are out.”

And it was the middle of the work day. The reasoning there was pretty obvious, odds were  everyone else was at work. “You want I should roll him up?”

Sanders frowned. I couldn’t rush him but it’s also against the rules for me to do anything without his okay, so I settled for tapping my foot impatiently. After a second he asked, “How do you think he’s planning to get out of here once the fire’s going?”

“If it was me, I’d just crush the sink down into as small a space as I could and melt back through the door.”

Jack took his turn looking out the door. “Better decide something soon. The paint’s melting off the walls out there. The part of the wall he’s pushing that sink through is gonna catch soon.”

“Alright, try it. But careful, huh? We don’t want any more property damage on our hands.” Sanders glanced a Jack. “While he’s busy with that we’ll try and secure this guy. Keep in mind that just because he doesn’t want to risk a gun in all that heat doesn’t mean he couldn’t carry a knife.”

“I dunno,” Jack said. “Even if we bag him, we don’t have the right containment for him here. Are you sure you can hold him that long?”

“No,” I said, “but I’d rather have him under wraps, no matter how poorly, than loose this chance to nail him. Are we good to go?”

“Ready,” Jack answered.

I opened the door and stepped out into the hallway, stretching the fingers of my hands out and pushing down on the heat around me. A heat sink of my own formed and the temperature in the hallway began to drop slightly as the loose heat flowed into it. As it did I yelled down the hallway, “This is Special Agent Double Helix of the FBI. Release your heat sink and step into the hallway with your hands up or we will remove you from the building by force.”

No one answered, so I grit my teeth and started down the hallway. Like Jack had told me, there was an open door a little ways down with a sheet of visibly rippling air in front of it.

Almost immediately the heat sink started to push down the hall towards me. As the heat got less concentrated it got less intense, just like butter scraping across bread. That was a comfort. He was stretching the sink out instead of just pushing it down the hallway at me. It meant that he didn’t know how to build a heat sink that didn’t touch his body any better than I did. It would also make my work easier if the heat was spread out.

I deepened the heat sink in my hands. As I pushed a channel formed between my heat sink and his and the temperature between the two began to equalize, spreading the heat farther and reducing the overall temperature even more. I was about to push even harder, deepening my heat sink even further, when he seemed to realize what I was up to and jerked back. The equilibrium between us broke and, although I pushed as hard as I could, trying to crush down the heat gushing up, it wasn’t enough. It slipped free and all around me, the world turned red…

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4 responses to “Heat Wave: Dry Tinder

  1. Nice start, Nate! Love the retro police/detective feel of the dialogue with the superpowers mixed in. The heat fight description was a bit too long and in depth for me. But, that’s just me. I like how the dude is 5’3″ and the muscle. 🙂

    • Thanks Deana. Finding the right balance between geeky detail with the superpowers and keeping the story moving seems like it’s going to be a real challenge as the story moves on. Keep me apprised of how I’m doing and I’ll try to find a good balance.

      The cop vibe and the deceptive appearance both owe their place in the story to Peter Faulk’s Lt. Columbo, a deceptively rumpled and jovial detective who pretty much always managed to get his man. While they’re not too similar, I do find myself thinking of Columbo from time to time when I’m writing Helix.

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