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The Phantom Flame-bringer

by vigournet 

Posted: 01 April 2012
Word Count: 1944
Summary: The pursuit of an arsonist

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“Hell found me!” screamed John.
The flames licked around him as he raced down the school corridor. Knowing it was his doing made his predicament worse. Assuming his plan was flawless he dashed on breathlessly, panting and gasping for air. He was a firesetter, proud of his accomplishments until now

Two weeks before Christmas I crawled out of bed.
Kissing my sleepy-eyed wife, “Sorry, hun, I have to go.”
“Duh? Not again, Victor, this is no joke. Can’t they call someone else?”

Getting quickly dressed I called, “See you soon” and left my warm house. By the time I reached the scene I knew we were chasing the flames again.

“Looks like him again, Mike,” I intimated to the senior fire-fighter, as I nervously carried my video and stepladder towards the burning mass. “I need to get close to record the way this one grows.”

“Yeah, I guess it is, Victor. Sure looks like his handy work. Don’t get too close. This one will collapse the roof soon” the fireman warned me.

Black smoke billowed upwards, searing flames licking through broken windows, blue lights spinning around casting eerie shadows across the playground. Gigantic snake-like hoses pulsed and gyrated with high pressure jets of water. Sights I will never forget. In my seven years as a Fire Investigation officer I had never seen such speedy devastation. I knew then my evidence had to be meticulous, detailed and thorough.

“I need to get closer, Mike, so I can get a good recording”

“Okay, Victor, I will get the lads to spray some jets over you.”

The cool spray splattered all around me. I felt the pressure of the water jets pushing me forwards. It was important to record the inferno as it took hold. My job was to examine, record and present conclusions to the school, police, insurance and Fire Service. The Blue Coat School was not the first. Readers of my report would associate it with me; it was inevitable, headed and signed Victor McDonald. Standing on the metal steps as close as I dare, I stretched my 5ft. 6” frame to record with the JVC VCR.

My eyebrows were singed, perspiration dripped from my forehead as I leaned against the top of the ladder recording as speedily as I could. I disliked the white safety helmet but was glad it offered some protection, my grey-haired ponytail tucked up inside. The heat erupted like Mt. Vesuvius belching blazing sparks and glass shards over my head like fireworks.

“This is getting out of control, sir, you had better get back,” one of the uniformed fire-fighters shouted to me.

“Okay, I am through I think, until I can enter the building.”

The December night sky was lit up like Bonfire Night. Choking clouds spiraled towards the moon, causing it to hide its face. Smoldering embers smoked around the engines as dark-uniformed fire-fighters bedecked in yellow overalls streamed more water towards the sweltering fury. Pieces of debris was spitting, sparkling, sizzling and hissing hitting the sides of the building and the playground. I ducked, sliding quickly down the stepladder. It would be some hours before I could enter the blackened and charred remains.

The time was one fifteen in the morning on December 11th 2011. Once again the target was a school. Our arsonist repeated his pattern with alarming regularity. Arson is the purposeful lighting of fires that cause damage to the environment, property and people.
Fortunately, nobody was injured on that occasion. I prepared my report on the West Midlands serial arsonist. Based on the number of events, their frequency and locations, arson is classified by type as single, double, triple, mass, spree or serial. We were dealing with a vendetta-led person, getting bolder and more dangerous every blaze. In England in an average week our communities suffer over 1200 serious fires, 50 injuries, 2 deaths and cost to society of £45 million, instigated by Firesetters.

Such was the impact to Local Authority buildings that serious resources had been made available. A dedicated team of experienced professional had been released from their day jobs to give solid focus to finding the culprit. It was none o’ clock in the morning the day after the Blue Coat School fire when the team came together. In a room next to the Deputy Fire Chief’s office I faced my six colleagues, a mix of 3 fire-fighters one CID sergeant, an Insurance loss-adjuster and a criminal profiler.

“Okay, listen up, people,” I gathered everyone’s attention. “It looks like Porky has struck again. Let’s focus and brainstorm on what we know, see if we’re missing anything.”
Mark, the Profiler, gave us his heads up.
“He’s a male, early to late teens, low achiever at school, probably unemployed. “

“That fits half the teenage population,” one of my team suggested.

“His habitation is within a radius of five miles of the targeted area,” the profiler continued.

“Makes sense, we know he gets to the scene on a pushbike, according to a witness,” my second-in-command added.

“Problems with long-term relationships could well have been abused as a child or bullied, in a dysfunctional family. Motives could vary: - an excitement and adrenalin rush; curiosity and fascination with fire; anti-social and destructive behaviour; an expressive cry for help, a compulsion that was uncontrollable.”

“And he’s a fat bastard,” Sean, one of the senior Fire and Rescue Officers commented. “We know that from a witness at one of the earlier scenes.”

“Thanks, everyone,” I nodded to the team, “anyone else got something?

On the glass screen-wall facing us were photos of the fires, press releases, significant findings at the scene. We knew that few arson investigations resulted in criminal prosecution. Our combined knowledge and experience would be pooled to spotlight the locations of the LEA buildings set on fire in the previous twenty-four months, types of fire, circumstances that were special. Every fire has a signature of its own. The team were reading signs and listening to the whispers, chasing the flames.
John Stokes combed his black hair, making a parting down the middle. Placing his metal-wired rounded spectacles over his bulbous nose he examined his pot-marked skin for new blemishes. Struggling to pull his size 16 black tee-shirt over his size 22 girth he shouted to his mother.

“Mother you have shrunk my favourite tee-shirt. You can’t do anything right, you old bat!”
Refusing to take the bait, Beryl Stokes called up the stairs. “There’s a red one in your drawer.”
“BLACK, you know I love black,” John exclaimed. His day was ruined because his idiot mother couldn’t use a washing machine properly. He did not consider that he had put on weight. Since twelve stone at twelve years old he had ballooned to eighteen stone by his seventeenth birthday in the summer.

“I’m going to the allotment,” he announced slamming the front door.

Beryl was secretly glad that her troubled boy had left the house. It gave her some private time with Daytime TV. Since her husband had passed away, occupied her moments dreaming of better days and fending off her son’s abuse.

Still seething over his confrontation at home John, or Porky, as the fire investigation team had named him, kicked the shed door shut and surveyed his possessions in his workshop lair. Most of the items in the allotment shed belonged to his late father. New acquisitions were instant camera, cork-board, petrol cans and empty coke bottles. Attached to the board were four Polaroid snaps of burnt buildings, taken the day after each fire.
As he pinned a new photo to his treasured snaps John welled with pride, “Yes, the phantom flame-bringer strikes again!”

Contrary to what the population felt about him John didn’t regard himself as a monster. He was a craftsman, a master at his art. His blackened graffiti was testimony to his prowess. Life was never in danger, in his opinion, he was “sticking it to the bastards who had given him grief”, getting his own back from teachers who failed him.

Fire had held a fascination for John since his junior school days. Lighting fires in the woods at the back of Dudley Zoo he had been mesmerized by the tongues of heat. He could put up with the smell of smoke on his clothes if he had experienced a good blaze. By his teens the ability to consume, devour, melt, roast and char gave him an instrument of power. Fires became his weapons of choice. Fire-play became malicious fire-setting which evolved into pyromania. His West Midlands crusade had started two years before Blue Coat School burned to the ground. Each gap between the fires was getting shorter. The next one was being planned in his disturbed head.
“This one will be ace!” he proclaimed aloud, knowing that he was the sole audience.


I was having rare moments at home before gathering the team together again. My first marriage had suffered due to my commitment to the Fire and Rescue Service. Sally, and I don’t blame her, never knew when or if I would be home. In the end our strained relationship ended. Two years ago I proposed to Becky and happily she said “yes”. My job with Investigations was nowhere near as dangerous, but the hours were just as demanding. Especially if we were faced with the challenges we had with Porky.

“I am sorry about the other night, Becks. It was a school. We need to catch this bastard.”

“It’s alright, Victor, just sometimes I wish we had more times like this,” Becky wistfully gazed at me.

Relishing pepperoni pizza and a visit to the salad bar at Pizza Hut, Becky and I were enjoying a romantic interlude from our busy work schedules. Having our second top-up of coffee we held hands across the table, unembarrassed to show affection. My mobile bleeped a text message.
“No, it cannot be!” I exclaimed staring at the message. “Sorry, Becky, I must go, the fire is next to a residential area.”
Becky’s knuckles were white as she held them tightly in a ball, “Well if you must.”

The phantom flame-bringer saw the blue flashing lights appearing over the horizon. Unsatisfied with the fire’s slow progress, he walked along the corridor to the gym, sprinkling petrol as he walked. Thinking, mistakenly, he was walking away from the flames, towards the hall entrance, John threw a lighted match over his shoulder and smirked.
“That should do it,” he announced with glee, “I will take a photo at the back of the school, where I left my bike.” John often talked to himself, maybe because no-one else would listen to his rants.
His colossal mistake had been to underestimate the flammability of the old ceiling tiles. All of his previous conquests had been modern schools, many having
Acoustic tiles and sprinkler systems, which John disengaged as he worked. On this fatal occasion the master-planner had failed to properly survey the buildings.
“Oh shit! John shouted as he entered the gym. By opening the door he caused an updraft that rose towards him. The flames were chasing oxygen and he stood in their way.
“Run, you fat bugger, back up the corridor!”

Alas, it was too late for John Stokes. Hell found him and so did I; amongst the blackened devastation were the charred remains of a human body. Dental records established his identity. Police gave the sad news to his mother.
“He’s a good boy,” Beryl sobbed. “It’s since he lost his father he went to pieces.”
Later the SOCO team removed evidence from the allotment shed.
The phantom flame-bringer, AKA “Porky” would set no more fires.

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Comments by other Members

Bald Man at 19:14 on 02 April 2012  Report this post
Hi Vigournet

You certainly know fire and describe it very well - I could feel the heat, and see the flames; all very vivid & horribly real. I also thought you got inside the heads of both the narrator and the arsonist well, particularly the latter, describing his motives in a dispassionate way. I thought the 'power' motive was very plausible and understandable, given his background.

At times though, it felt a little documentary, eg.

"In England in an average week our communities suffer over 1200 serious fires, 50 injuries, 2 deaths and cost to society of £45 million, instigated by Firesetters."

Although this could work well if you are writing this to appear in an educational text book aimed at teens. But for the general reader, I felt it was a little too expositional.

A minor typo: 'none o’ clock'

I think you need to explain the abbreviation: 'LEA buildings'. You mentioned 'Local Authority' earlier in the story so you could say simply say 'schools'.

"Mother you have shrunk my favourite tee-shirt..." This sounded rather formal, particularly 'Mother', as he calls her an 'old bat' in the next breath. 'Mother' might be used ironically, but he didn't seem the sort to be too hot on irony! Suggest also that the contraction, 'you've' would sound more natural.

Good luck with this.


Buzzard at 20:12 on 04 April 2012  Report this post
Hi, Vigournet
It certainly feels as though you've researched your subject. In that respect the story is very convincing.

I wonder if the story would be served better by withholding the outcome from us until the end, though. And while there's certainly some interesting stuff explored when dealing with the investigator, I'm afraid I didn't feel it offered enough drama because his investigation has no bearing on the outcome. The paths of the investigation and arsonist don't meet until the arsonist's story is over by his own doing. I'd have liked some kind of crossover to bring things to a head.

Similarly, since the investigator's personal relationship features prominently, it would have been good to follow its course to something more of a conclusion. As it stands, we're simply seeing history repeat itself without much of a reaction from the narrator.

Hope that's OK.

All the best.

Becca at 14:44 on 05 April 2012  Report this post
Hi Peter,
I think since Clay has talked about the story itself, I'll talk a bit about stylistic matters, the first being exposition that Colin mentioned and ways of getting round it.
'He was a firesetter, proud of his accomplishments until now [fullstop missing here]. This sentence is expositional. I'd have edited it out. It becomes clear later what John does and it's anyway in the nature of firesetters to be proud of doing that.
'Arson is the purposeful...' no need to write this, the readers will know.

It does feel as if you have researched the story well, but I think it would've been better if you'd have slipped the statistics into a dialogue section if you could've done it in such a way that it didn't seem obvious, if you see what I mean? Otherwise, I think I'd have just left them out as they tend to jog the reader out of the story. [As an aside, while I'm thinking about it, you have several scenes in the story, but no atmosphere build-up and that might be something worth giving some thought to].

I like the way that John gets a scene, well not of his own, but nearly. Could I suggest that it really does become his scene? If you wrote it from his POV you'd have to lose the 'Since her husband had passed away...' sentence, but it would get us closer to John and it would contrast well with the investigation team scene.
'The next one was being planned in his disturbed head.' In this sentence 'disturbed' becomes exposition because it's explaining something, and it's also something the reader already knows.

In my opinion, the Becky in the Pizza Hut scene doesn't add anything to the story and if Becky is also 'hun' from the beginning scene, then you have established Victor as a man with a wife and that's good enough. I do think this story as it is might owe quite a lot, [and forgive me for saying so if I am wrong], to police dramas or films on TV, and adding the scene in a restaurant of a man having to leave his wife because 'duty' calls compounds it rather. Originality is a such an important thing to go after in fiction writing if you possibly can do.

'John often talked to himself, maybe because no-one else would listen to his rants.' This is exposition of the purest kind, lol! So if you wanted to get this information across in the story the most obvious way to do it is in a piece of dialogue between him and his mother, say she knocks on his door:-
'Go away, you're not allowed in here, Cow!'
'I'm not coming in, John. I just came to tell you that there's a red tee-shirt in the chest of drawers.'
'Black! I said black! What's the matter with you? You deaf or something? You deliberately shrunk my other black one with the skull. How did you know I was here anyway?'
'I heard you talking to yourself.'
'I don't talk to myself. What d'you think I am, mad or something?'
'Why don't you come downstairs, love. I've made you some sandwiches.'
'Why don't you get a life, Ma?'

You can get a lot of info into dialogue that when written into the text sounds clunky and all too easily comes over as exposition. You can build up his unstable character in dialogue as well so that you don't have to tell the reader a single thing about him, and that's what you are trying to avoid ...telling anything to the reader, but showing him and her everything.

I think since you had two main characters in this story, John and Victor, it would've been interesting if they had met before John gets fried in his own fire. You've got a lot of material here, I think it would be well worth re-considering the story itself, because I do think in the end Clay is right, history repeats itself. Maybe Victor and John are neighbours.

lang-lad at 23:47 on 07 April 2012  Report this post
Hi, Peter.
I won't say much, given how very thorough and thoughtful the other comments have been and I pretty much agree with what's been said. But here's a thought from left field. Until the location of the story was specifically mentioned, I was picturing it in the US. The dialogue came over, to me, as American. A chance to consider the individuality of the voices of each of the characters may be another way to approach how you work on developing this.
I'll leave it at that for now because, as I say, the others' points are good. Good luck.

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