Florigera rosis halo
“I perfume the air with my blossoms.”
The smell of citrus on the breeze was the only thing I liked about Attard Psychiatric Hospital. In the summer, the redolence of the flower gardens swept like a river through the cracks in the old Victorian building, flooding the yard with the bittersweet smell of lemon, and the rich flora from the gardens of San Anton Palace.
Between the endless nights staring at the ceiling, the monotony of day-to-day life, punctuated by the beatings and humiliations of the wardens, there was hope. Hope came in the form of the aroma –carried for miles across the land- of San Anton Palace and gardens. The wind carried with it the beauty of the island; blowing in from the coast, picking up the saltiness of the air, travelling through the endless bounty of plants and flowers, meandering through the dry riverbed of Wied Inċita, and dispersing across Attard. Perhaps it was illusory, but in the wisps of wind, I felt that I could taste the land from which I had been separated. It was a reminder that beyond these old stone walls, there were better things waiting for me.
I dreamt at night of the white poplar trees of Wied Irmiedi -the valley of Ashes- as the tip of the sun dipped over the horizon in the East, and the flames rose in the West. Ashes carried on the wind like snowflakes, breaking apart, painting the White Poplar trees with soot, perfuming the air with smoke.
Before my father died, he’d taught me to identify some of the native Maltese flowers; though there were over eight hundred endemic to Malta, I could identify a great many of them by scent alone; The Red Campion, with its sweet and musty fragrance; the Asiatic lily, which bloomed in early summer in hues of mauve and rose, and my personal favourite, the barbary nut iris –with its unusual starchy scent- flowered just once a day in the early afternoon, closing up again by nightfall.
I looked out through the crack in my window that night. It wouldn’t be long now before I’d be free. Free from this place, free from her.
“Does it hurt? Do you need some pain relief?” I said, leaning over her.
She looked up at me, lifting her heavy, wrinkled eyelids. She smiled weakly. She had a kind face, wrought with laughter lines.
“I’ll give you something to take away the pain, is that okay Mrs Makins?”
I prepped the syringe with Diamorphine. This should be enough to alleviate her suffering. She looked up at me wearily as I administered the injection. Her eyelids slowly closed, and I placed my fingers on her neck, feeling her pulse slowing down rapidly.
I remembered watching my own mother dying of cancer, screaming on the kitchen table for hours. Back in those days, if you were poor and sick in Ancoats, you died.
You died in pain.
I cried for hours, watching her die slowly, praying for it to end. Nobody should suffer like that; nobody’s final moments on this earth should be fraught with agony, as a growing mass of mutated cells grinds your insides into nothing. In the end, I knew it was up to me to take her by the hand and guide her through the shadow of death. I found an old bottle of Laudanum in the basement, mixed it with sugar and water, and fed it to her until her screaming subsided forever.
I looked down at Mrs Makins, sleeping peacefully. Gradually, the pulse faded away to nothing. The sound of gas pushing through residual bodily fluids escaped from her mouth in a wheezing gurgle; the death rattle. I stood for a moment -holding her hand in mine- as the flesh became stiff and began to cool. When the hand became cold, I called her next of kin to inform them of her passing.
The journey home was a long one. Not many doctors did home visits these days. That’s why I was so popular amongst the elderly. The car meandered through the outer city and into the countryside. The vast expanse of synthetic light gave way to the darkness of the hills and the glow of the moon, and I was finally at ease. I breathed deeply, savouring the tranquillity. Tonight, I would drift into a truly peaceful sleep.
I turned the key in the lock, pushing the door open slowly and stepping into my porch. I made my way through to the kitchen. I turned on the light to see a tall, heavy-set man with small burns on his face standing before me. We stood face-to-face. Before I could cry out for help, he struck me in the mouth, knocking me to the floor. Gripping my ankles, he dragged me through to the living room, as I cried out for help. At once, he lifted me up, clapping his hand over my mouth and holding me up before a veiled figure.
“Doctor Cellarman.” The figure spoke, “The angel of mercy.”
The man released his hand from my mouth.
“Please, whoever you are, take whatever you want. I have cash in a desk drawer upstairs. Just don’t hurt me.”
“I’m not interested in your hidden cash, Doctor.” The figure continued, “What I am interested however, is your hidden supply of Diamorphine. I found it under a loose brick in the pantry.”
The veiled figure pulled a syringe out from behind their back.
“It’s easy to appease your conscience when you tell yourself that you’re being merciful,” the figure spoke, “but you’re not killing out of mercy. You’re killing for the thrill of it and nothing more. The power over life and death –that level of power is truly addictive- and you have been seduced.” The veiled figure paced about in front of me, brandishing the syringe like a dagger.
“How many times have you sat and watched one of your patients die, knowing that at any moment you could revive them? Ten? Fifty? One hundred?”
I choked back a sob, “I’m not a killer. I’m not a killer. I just ease their passing.”
“And what of the elderly woman you injected with insulin.” The veiled figure growled, “What of the child you poisoned with turpentine? Were those mercy killings too?”
I sobbed heavily, “I didn’t do it. It wasn’t me.”
“The wage of sin is death. So, Doctor Cellarman, would you like me to ease your passing?” She said, holding the syringe up to my neck.
“No! Please don’t do it.”
“You’ve suffered long enough Doctor, living with this terminal sickness; this depraved, murderous compulsion. Don’t you want to see your mother again? Don’t you want me to take the pain away? One small injection Doctor, and you will die painlessly.”
She pressed the needle against my skin, scratching it lightly.
“No. Don’t do it. Please, I’m begging you,” I tipped my head away from the needle, “Don’t inject me with that thing!” I cried out.
She removed the needle, “You heard him. He doesn’t want to die painlessly.” She said casting the needle aside.
I breathed a heavy sigh of relief.
“Cover his head.” She said, looking at the burnt man.
At once, I was pushed down to my knees, as the burnt man began to roughly rub an oily mixture into my hair.
“What are you doing?” I cried out.
The veiled figure removed a locked plastic box from a black leather bag on the floor, opening it, she withdrew an old glass syringe full of clear liquid, brandishing in front of her like a dagger.
“Penance must be paid, Doctor Cellarman.”
She roughly pushed the blunted needle into my neck, injecting the liquid in one fluid motion. The liquid burned away at the inside of my neck as it spread through my jugular vein. The veiled figure pulled a stove lighter from the box and ignited the flame. The burnt man dropped me to the floor. I writhed in pain as the veiled figure extended her arm, touching the flame to my head. The flames erupted over my head, searing my flesh. The smell of burning hair invading my nostrils, as I desperately patted at my head to extinguish the flames.
I’d come home early. Business had been slow lately. I’d even considered shutting up the shop for good. The recession had hit us hard, and flowers were considered by most to be an unnecessary luxury. Who needs fresh, delicately arranged flowers when the petrol station across the road could sell you a handful of wilted crap for a third of the price?
There was so much more to flowers than their colour. It wasn’t the colour that invoked feeling, but that subtle scent arising from a chain of airborne pollens that conjured to life our deepest and rawest emotions and memories. Petrol station flowers couldn’t compete with that; locked up in the dark for hours on end, their subtle fragrances obscured by the smell of diesel and rubber.
My phone rang as soon as I got in. I reached down to the strap on my leg where I kept my phone and cards. People wondered why I did this; I told them it was for protection, just in case I get mugged again.
The first time I was mugged, they took everything. My phone, my bag, even my shoes.
It’s a bastardized word really; ‘Mugged’.
You weren’t being mugged off when somebody brandished a knife and asked for your possessions. You’d be a mug not to hand them over really. Why take something and call it something else? They could still find my phone of course, but if the mugger searched that far, the phone would be the least of my worries.
I answered the phone.
“Hello, Christine?” the voice said.
“Hi Richard, how are you?” I asked.
“Can we talk somewhere?” He said morosely.
“We’re talking right now. Is it important?”
He cleared his throat, “It’s important.”
Richard spread the photographs across the table. I blinked, taking in the images.
“There have been five victims so far, all of them burned alive.”
I shuddered, looking away from the images of the charred bodies.
“Next time, a little warning might be nice.” I said, “You know I don’t like looking at this sort of thing.”
“I’m sorry Christine, but there’s no time to waste. The frequency of the attacks is increasing. This one-” he said, pointing to an image of a charred body, “Was from over a year ago. These two-” he pointed to two of the photographs, “-were murdered within the last week.”
“How do you know it’s the same culprit?” I asked.
“I don’t. The source of ignition varies. Some of the fires have been started with Lithium and water; others have been started with methylated spirits and petroleum jelly.” Richard explained.
I looked carefully at the photographs for a few moments, “Why do you think I can help?” I asked.
“You know why.” Richard said, “You helped me to catch the Hackney arsonist.”
A few years ago, fires had been occurring all over Hackney at an alarming frequency. The fires were all electrical, and appeared to be down to faulty wiring. Richard was assigned to investigate the anomaly, but found no hard evidence of foul play. Breaking with professional conduct, he’d asked for my advice. We’d been friends for years, and he knew I had a degree in Criminal Psychology, specialising in Pyromania and Arson.
After looking at the evidence, I quickly deduced that the culprit was a firefighter. He’d been entering people’s houses to check their smoke detectors, and taking the opportunity to manipulate the circuit board in such a way that a fire would soon break out. He’d then be the first one on the scene to identify the source of the fire and extinguish it, making him look like the hero. I told him to check the records of the houses for smoke detector checks, find out which fire officers had conducted them, and cross reference it against the fire officers at the scene of the crime. It was just a hunch, but one which proved to be correct. Since then, he’d used my services as a consultant on cases which involved pyromania and arson.
“The victims –I assume- have all died from burns.” I said, looking at the positions of the bodies.
“Well, yes-” Richard said.
“And yet the majority of house fire victims die from smoke inhalation.” I reaffirmed.
Richard nodded, “That’s correct.”
“Then from this we can assume that the culprit is highly sadistic. They wanted their victims to suffer.” I explained.
Richard screwed up his face in confusion, “You’ve deduced this from the pictures?”
“I’ve deduced it from what you haven’t told me Richard.” I explained, “This victim-” I point to a picture of a charred body, “-This person was burned with a mixture of diesel and petrol. You can see from the rainbow colouring of the liquid trailing away from the body.” I said, pointing to a multi-coloured trickle of liquid in the photograph, “I’d say a sixty-forty petrol to diesel ratio; the same ratio used by the self-immolating monk Thích Quảng Đức.”
“Who?” Richard asked.
“He was a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. He immolated himself in Saigon in the sixties in protest of the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government.”
“Oh yes…” Richard said sheepishly, “I remember the pictures. Ugly business.”
“Thích Quảng Đức knew that petrol alone would burn up too quickly, and wouldn’t kill him. Rather, he’d die slowly from his burns over the course of a few days. Mixing diesel with petrol however, meant that the flames burned at a lower temperature, and for longer. He knew he would burn to death before the mixture was used up.”
Richard squinted at me, “How do you know all of this?” he asked.
“I studied it for four years Richard. This is the easy stuff.” I explained.
Richard looked at me, pulling his sleeves down his arms, “Right.” He nodded, “So you’re saying that the arsonist used petrol mixed with diesel to ensure the victim died at the scene.”
I nodded, “Exactly.”
“That way, the victim wouldn’t be able to give testimony?” Richard asked.
“It’s highly unlikely the victim could have testified either way, not after being burned like that anyway. No -the killer wanted the victim to die in flames- not in a hospital bed pumped full of painkillers.” I explained.
Richard shook his head softly, “So do you think the murders were personal?”
I looked down at the pictures, “Not personal exactly, although the victims were chosen for some reason. If I were you, I’d start looking at the history of each victim, find some causal link between them.”
“We’ve checked for links,” Richard explained, “none of them ran in the same circles, socially or professionally. None of them knew each other.”
I peered down at the photographs, “Tell me what professions we’re talking about here.”
Richard counted the victims on his fingers as he listed their respective professions, “A former sergeant in the British Army, a doctor, a former prison warden, a teacher and a police officer.”
“There’s your link.” I said.
Richard looks at me, raising one eyebrow.
“Well it’s obvious.” I explained, “All of the victims were in a position of trust -loco parentis or otherwise- over others.”
Richard squinted at me sceptically, “You’re saying the culprit was under their trust?”
I shook my head, “Highly improbable. Look at it from the top down. Why would these people be targeted?”
Richard looks down at the pictures and then looks up at me.
“They were targeted because…” He paused, “They were abusing their power.”
“How are you feeling, patient 141?” She said coldly, looking me up and down with contempt.
I sat on the bed. It wouldn’t be long now before I would be discharged.
Just three more days.
“I’m not patient 141.” I muttered softly, “I’m not just a number!”
She smirked at me, baring her teeth in that way that she did when she was about to punish me.
“You’re not a patient either. Not really.” She grinned, “A patient can be treated -but you- well you’re beyond treatment. The only hope anyone we have is to minimise your capacity for damage, whether that’s through drugs, punishment, or other methods.” She said, pulling a pair of steel pliers from her pocket. “Have you heard of Henry Cotton?” She said, brandishing the pliers and pacing about the room. “I expect you haven’t. Well, Henry Cotton was an innovative pioneer of surgical bacteriology.”
I looked down at the granite floor.
“Pay attention 141!” She snapped.
My head shot upwards, my eyes transfixed on the pliers.
“Henry Cotton worked at the New Jersey State Hospital in Trenton.” She said, twiddling the pliers in her hand, “Of course, it wasn’t called that back then. They called it ‘The New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum’ in those days. But we’re not allowed to say ‘lunatic’ anymore, are we 141?” She turned to face me, opening the pliers and shutting them repeatedly. “As Shakespeare said, ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’, and as I say; a lunatic by any other name is still an incurable, disgusting burden on society. Why take one thing and call it something else?”
My hands trembled, my jaw clenching tight.
“Henry Cotton you see, his philosophy was a little different. He believed that lunacy had its root cause in dental infections.” She said, stepping towards me with the pliers. “To remove the teeth, was to remove the infection. Now ask me if I believe he was right…”
She stepped forward, grabbing me roughly by the hair. I yelped as she tugged my hair, forcing me to my feet.
“Go on,” She said, pulling my hair back tightly and leaning her face into mine, “Ask me…”
I closed my eyes tightly.
“Do you believe-” I stuttered, “Do you believe he was right?”
She released me, and I dropped back on to my bed in a heap.
“No.” She grinned, “But I don’t believe he was wrong either. Imagine if I were to rip all of your teeth out. Would it make you more docile? More peaceful?”
She opened the pliers, gripping my bottom lip and squeezing tightly.
“It would certainly shut you up, wouldn’t it 141?”
I sipped my coffee. It had already gone cold, and the milk had begun to gather in a strange wispy shape on the surface. It had taken hours, but the evidence was there. Christine’s hunch –it appeared- was correct.
Constable Tim Matheson, killed in an arson attack, badly beaten with a truncheon first.
Worked for the Metropolitan police for four years. A history of violence towards arrestees, investigated for the beating of an eighteen year old in his custody two years ago, which resulted in his death. The case was dropped due to insufficient evidence.
Horace Alberforth, killed in an arson attack. The murderer poured Methylated spirits on to his genitals in order to start the fire. Worked in HMP Durham for six years, numerous reports of sexual assault against inmates. Nothing conclusive.
Matthew Gregory, killed in an arson attack. Died from shock after having a hot iron spike forcibly inserted into his anus; worked as a teacher for twenty years. Numerous reports of inappropriate behaviour towards children. Not enough evidence to bring to trial.
Malcolm Trevalyn, killed in an arson attack, beaten and stabbed multiple times before being set alight. A Sergeant in the British army, responsible for the training and supervision of new recruits. Dishonourably discharged after encouraging older recruits to beat and abuse the newcomers.
Doctor Howard Cellarman, killed in an arson attack; injected with acid first. A respected doctor of twenty five years, with an abnormally high patient mortality rate.
I could see a clear pattern forming in the victims. Each one of them appeared to have been abusing their position of power for their own sick satisfactions. The motivation behind the abuse did not stem from financial gain, or career advancement. The motive always seemed to derive from a compulsion for cruelty, a sexual perversion, sadistic nature, or a need for domination. The victims were –for lack of a better term- psychologically damaged.
It had taken me days to drag up this paltry information, and though most of it wasn’t entirely conclusive, it had occurred to me how strange it was that the arsonist had come to gather this information before it had drawn the attention of the police.
How was I to apprehend the culprit when their intended victims had managed to evade capture for so long?
The task was assigned to nobody.
He was one of the endless lists of guilty parties -incriminated by the frightened and angered words of countless therapized youngsters- and he was to die.
I could see him –Alan Harris- right where I was told he’d be. Nestled into the shrubbery, the shadows of the trees would obscure me to the point of near invisibility. It wasn’t late, but the evenings were getting darker. The fluorescent cold white lighting in the kitchen of the school where he stood meant that even if he were to look directly at me, he’d see nothing.
For the first time, I’d be working alone. The timing was inopportune, and the circumstances disagreeable. There’d be no veil -no grandiose speech about penance- not this time.
One of the spikes on the fence was missing. I climbed over this portion of the fence deftly and silently. The cameras around the school were old, mounted and rotatable. Budget cuts meant that they had to work with outdated equipment. Despite the age of the cameras, cutting the wires would set off the alarm; I approached from behind and turned them to face the wall, then made my way through the door and into the kitchen. I approached him from behind, gripping him tightly by the neck, cupping his mouth and dragging him through to the stationery cupboard.
He didn’t put up much resistance; I expect he thought he was being robbed. I didn’t give him the big speech like I was asked to. He was completely compliant when I bundled him into the cupboard. When the fluids started to seep in under the door, that’s when he began to panic. Screaming and banging on the door.
The door was an old one. Not one of the big heavy fire doors that were supposed to be in place in public buildings such as this one. I wondered if he might be able to break the thing down. No matter, he wouldn’t escape the building itself.
I lit up the mixture and made my way to the back exit, exactly as I was instructed to, looping a chain around the door handles and padlocking them shut. I could make an easy escape back to the town through the bushes. Still, I was afraid.
I was told me to stand there, and wait until I could see the flames. Make sure the job was done correctly. I wasn’t just afraid of getting caught, I was afraid of what would happen to me if I didn’t comply. I was afraid of the person I’d become.
Lock it up in a box in your head and drop it into the void. Get rid of it entirely. Cut it off.
That’s what I told myself, as I stood there, watching the smoke rising from the windows. That’s when I heard it. The screaming -not the deep agonized screams of the teacher- but the shrill, panicked screams of the children that were trapped inside the building.
The scent of the San Anton Gardens was particularly sweet today. Every day that crept closer to this day –the day of my release- the scent became more potent in its mellifluousness. I woke up to the scent of Maltese Centaury, that mild fragrance -almost like English tea- seemed to pervade the entire building. Perhaps it was illusory, even at less than a foot away, the Centaury’s scent was minimal. The scent of lemon hung sweetly on the nostrils, growing stronger throughout the day as my probationary hearing approached. The scent of Centaury and citrus had become so tangible that I could almost taste it on my tongue.
Derrick Fletcher was an intimidating man; tall and stoic, barrel-chested and tall. With his arms folded, he towered over me like a hulk, staring down at me with those piercing, crystal blue eyes.
“Patient 141, Christine Barrows.” He said, leafing through my forms.
“Yes.” I nodded.
“You’ve been here for thirty months now, is that correct?” he said condescendingly.
“Yes,” I bowed my head compliantly, “thirty months.”
“Your case worker -Abigail Percival- she says you have made significant progress in your therapy.”
“Yes.” I smiled slightly, “Thank you.”
“However,” he sighed deeply, “she does not believe that you’re ready for reintegration at this point, and would like to keep you in for at least another six months.”
My heart sank into my stomach, “But…” I said in protest, “Another six months?”
“Please, Christine.” He waved his hand, “This is for your own safety. In six months’ time, you will be better prepared to reintegrate into society.” He explained, “When we discharge a patient prematurely, we often find that their recidivism rates are higher. The last thing we want is to release you early and have you return for a longer period.”
“But I was promised.” I choked back a sob, “She promised.”
“Christine, we have no interest in keeping you here longer than is absolutely necessary.” He said firmly, “However, we have a duty of care to our patients.”
“A duty of care?!” I said, unable to control my anger, “Abigail has beaten, belittled and humiliated me for years.”
He waved his hand once more, “Abigail says that she you have been difficult, aggressive and uncooperative. She tells me you’ve taken to parasuicidal mutilation on occasion. She worries for your safety.”
A tear meandered its way down my cheek “But please… Mr Fletcher.”
He folded his arms once more, maintaining that solid gaze. The scent of Centaury and citrus faded, the taste turning to ashes in my mouth.
I looked up ruefully at Derrick. He turned his face away.
“My word on this is final, Christine.”
Standing before me, still wearing that black veil; holding a candle in one hand, and running a finger through the flame playfully with the other.
“To withdraw from a task without completing it, is far worse than having never started.” The voice spits from behind the veil, “You have jeopardised the entire operation.”
I shook my head slowly, trying to disguise the panic rising up in my stomach.
“There were children in there. I had to open the doors. I agreed to help you-”
“-I never gave you a choice! You are nobody. Nobody at all.”
The cruel words rang out like a shrill bell.
“We all have a debt to pay. You are here to work off your debt. This arrangement is involuntary.”
I took a deep breath, looking down at my cracked black boots.
“I agreed to help you protect them.” I muttered “How can we protect those children if they are locked in a burning building?”
I could feel the cold sneer penetrating through the veil, “You think we’re protecting people?” the faceless voice cackled, “No. We’re delivering righteous penance to those who have abused their power. It is of no concern to me if others are caught in the flames.”
I looked up, “How can you say that?”
“Have you ever heard of a ‘Corpse Candle’?” the voice asked callously.
I looked up subserviently, shaking my head.
“A corpse candle is a flame that appears above the shallow grave of the recently deceased during a thunderstorm. The decaying body releases methane, which rises from the ground over the burial spot. The electrical currents from the thunderstorm ignite the methane, resulting in fiery orbs, which meander across the ground.”
The light from the candle cast a shadow of the veil on the ceiling.
“In times gone by, they called these lights the ‘Will of the wisp’ because the fiery orbs seemed to possess a will of their own, moving of their own accord. They would lead wandering travellers hardy enough to follow the candles. Some would be lead to shelter from the storm, others to their graves.”
The candle seemed to burn brighter as the words were spoken, the shadows growing darker.
“Fire is sentient; it has its own will, its own plane of existence. In Greek mythology, Prometheus was eternally punished for bringing the gift of fire to the world of man. The Gods believed that it was too much power for man to wield. You see, fire is chaos. Not a solid, not a gas, but pure, primal chaos. It spreads across the land, consuming the innocent and the guilty alike. It is not for us to decide where the fire spreads, nor whom it consumes. It is only for us to provide the spark.”
The finger pressed down on the flame, extinguishing it with a sizzle.
I looked back down at my boots, “And what about us? What if the fire consumes us too?”
The candle dropped to the floor, splashing wax across my boots.
“In time, it will.” the voice croaked, lifting the veil away, “Prometheus was punished for his crimes. Alan Harris was not. And so, you must be. This is the will of the flame.”
I looked up at her snarling face, such beauty, warped and poisoned by sadistic perversions that manifested themselves in her face.
I rose to my feet, shakily.
“Hold out your hands.” She demanded.
I held out my hands, my fingers trembling slightly.
“Seven seconds for each hand.” She said, removing another lit candle from the table and holding it close to my hands. “If you move, we will start again from the beginning. Do you understand?”
I nodded, as sweat began to pour from the sides of my head.
She held the candle under my palm, the flame licking my palm. I screamed in agony, as she counted down from seven; resisting the call from every fibre of my body, screaming at me to move my hand away from the flame as it split, cracked and burned my skin away.
“His name is Alan Harris, another teacher.” I said, as we drove towards the hospital, “He’s lucky to be alive.” I explained to Christine, “The arsonist had locked him in a stationery cupboard before pouring petrol and diesel underneath the door and setting it alight.”
I turned off the corner of James Lane, pulling into Whipps Cross Hospital.
“What the arsonist hadn’t counted on,” I continued, “was the rubber draught-excluder underneath the door blocking most of the liquid from entering, thus giving the victim enough time to break the door down and escape.”
I pulled into the car park. Christine unbuckled her seatbelt, and stepped out of the car.
“What interests me,” She said, “is why the killer targeted him?”
He was suffering from the effects of smoke inhalation, and had needed a bronchoscopy, but all in all, he was on the road to recovery. He inhaled heavily on the oxygen mask as we approached. I could understand his recent mistrust of strangers, but he’d been informed we were coming. Despite his protestations, we’d been able to come to an arrangement; an informal round of questioning from the hospital bed.
“He was a big man, a strong man -with burns on his hands and face- dotted all over. I don’t know how he got in.” He wheezed.
“And he acted alone?” I asked, noting down his responses on a pad of paper.
“As far as I could tell.” He said weakly.
I pulled from my pocket the sketch artist’s rendition of the attacker. His description had not changed; from the face –pockmarked with burns- to the leathered skin and muscular upper body -‘the burnt man’- as his name had become around the precinct, was every bit as nightmarish as could be imagined. I looked at the picture; his was a particularly distinctive look, one which would turn heads wherever he went. Fortunately, this would make him easier to identify and capture.
“And you’d never encountered the attacker before?” I asked.
“Definitely not.” He said, coughing slightly, “You wouldn’t forget a man of that stature.”
Christine looked across at Alan Harris impatiently, “Why do you think you were targeted?” She asked bluntly.
He inhaled deeply on his oxygen mask, “I don’t know, Detective.”
“She’s not a detective.” I explained, “She’s a special consultant.”
He nodded, clapping the oxygen mask to his face once more.
“It’s strange, but you are the first surviving victim of the arsonist.” I stated, “After investigating all of the victims extensively, we’ve found that they all have one thing in common; a history of abusive behaviour towards those in their care.”
He inhaled deeply on his oxygen once more, blinking rapidly.
“This time, I’ll ask you Mr Harris…” I paused fixing him with a stare, “Why do you think you were targeted?”
He began to inhale rapidly, clutching the mask to his face as though it might protect him from further questions.
“I don’t know.” He stated, fidgeting in his bed, “I’d like to rest now, if you don’t mind.” He said sharply.
She walked into my room, holding a tray of food, baring her teeth in that way that she did. She gently placed the tray on the floor by the door, which she locked behind her.
“Did you really think I was going to let you get away that easily 141?” She grinned.
Gripping me roughly by the hair, she dragged me from my bed and threw me roughly onto the granite floor. My head hit the floor with a dull thud.
“You’re going to be here for as long as I see fit, don’t you forget that, 141.”
I rubbed my head, lying on my side on the cold hard floor, my eyes glassing over with tears.
“You’ll never escape me 141 -as long as you live- I’ll be there.”
I looked up at her from the floor, her cruel face snarling down at me.
“Why are you doing this to me?” I pleaded, “Why won’t you let me go?”
She kicked me sharply in the ribs, “Because you don’t deserve to go. You don’t deserve freedom. Innocence by way of insanity? That’s just an excuse to avoid penance, an excuse to be the victim. You’re pathetic. Stop complaining and face your punishment.”
I closed my eyes tightly, “Please… stop.”
She spat on me, a thick wad of saliva hitting my tightly closed eye, followed by another sharp kick in the stomach.
“Stop what?” She said, kicking me repeatedly. The sharp kicks bruised my abdomen, forcing me to curl up into a ball. She stamped, kicked and spat repeatedly, until every part of my body was consumed with a deep, piercing ache.
After she’d exhausted herself, she picked up the tray she’d brought in with her, lifting it above my whimpering body and throwing the food over me. I looked up at her from under the mess.
“Look at you.” She sniggered, “You’re a mess.”
I placed my hands out in front of me, bringing myself to a crawl.
“Eat your food.” She spat.
I looked down at the piles of mashed food, mixed with the estuaries of blood that had spread out across the room.
“Go on.” She said, “Eat.”
I stayed, frozen to the spot, looking at a pile of cold mashed potato on the floor; the blood had begun to soak into it, along with the dirt and dust of the cell floor.
“Eat!” She shrieked, placing her foot on the back of my head and pushing my head down into the pile of pulverised food. She held my head in place; face down in the mess, which began to invade my nostrils. I coughed sharply.
“Eat!” She repeated, pressing my face further into the food. I opened my mouth, consuming a chunk of gritty mashed potato.
“Chew your food.” She ordered, “Wouldn’t want you to choke now, would we?”
I swallowed the cold morsel of food; almost choking on the chunks of grit and dust, only then did she take her foot off the back of my head.
I looked up at her, food and blood smattered across my face. Through my glassy eyes, I could still make out that snarling expression. The one that said ‘I’m the victor’, the one that made me feel like the victim she told me I wasn’t.
“Why are you doing this?” I asked weakly.
“Penance, Christine.” She smirked, “We all have to pay penance.”
Christine and I both knew what the investigation was going to lead to. It took every bit of my professional reserve to keep an open mind, and interview the children without bias. I hoped against hope that my suspicions were wrong, even if that upset the correlation between the teacher and the other victims. There had been a teacher targeted already, he’d died in the flames. After investigating his personal possessions including his laptop, we’d found evidence that he was in possession of child pornography.
Alan Harris; he was the one surviving victim. I hoped that he was innocent, and had been targeted erroneously by the arsonist; but against my ideals, he had been targeted for the same reasons as the other victims.
Some of the children who had stayed behind at the afterschool care club had started to exhibit strange behaviours. Some had become introverted, quiet and sullen, others had started acting out or becoming violent. How was it that this abuse had gone undetected for so long, and yet, had drawn the attention of the arsonist? Where was he getting his information from?
“What are your thoughts Christine?” I asked, taking a sip of my bitter coffee.
“My thoughts, my assumptions, I imagine, are the same as yours.” She said, arranging a set of colourful Asiatic lilies into a bouquet.
“Why do you think Harris survived? Why would the burnt man go back and free him? Could it be a copycat killer? Something unrelated perhaps?” I asked.
Christine shook her head, “It’s unlikely. The mixture of petrol and diesel was the same. The profile of the victim was the same. The only difference is that the victim didn’t die.” She explained, “And they didn’t die because the burnt man returned to the scene of the crime to unlock the doors.” She said, spraying the lilies with water.
“Why would he have a sudden change of heart?” I asked, “It doesn’t fit his modus operandi at all.”
Christine looked at me, “He didn’t realise there were children still in the building. He still has some level of remorse for his actions.” She spread the lilies about evenly, “That’s my theory, anyway.”
I squinted at her, “And yet this didn’t seem to affect him when he burned down the house on Smith Street. The fire spread to the house next door, seriously injuring a young mother, and risking the life of her child. Why would he suddenly start to care about children?”
Christine shot me a piercing stare, “Every other case we’ve looked at has been meticulously planned. This one just seems… rushed.” She said, placing the lilies to one side.
“You’re saying the burnt man didn’t plan it properly?”
“I’m saying that the burnt man is not the one planning these attacks. He’s not acting alone.” She said, returning to the table, “I’m saying the burnt man didn’t follow orders.”
In the animal kingdom, fire is god. You will not find a single animal that does not fear fire. In archaic times, to master fire was to master the world. Human beings emerged from the sea, gazed up at the great ball of flame in the sky, and recognised the god for what it was; the great provider, the great destroyer. Human beings were the first animals to stare into the flames and try to control them; creating and utilizing fire, providing warmth, providing light, providing access to food, creating tools, and warding off predators. Fire truly was the god of early man. Fire was the reason that human beings rose to become the dominant species. Fire was the key to our survival. Fire, and the evolution of man are symbiotically linked; man feeds the fire, and fire feeds man.
But fire can never be truly tamed or controlled; the god is not benevolent, the god is indomitable and insatiable, unruly and unpredictable. The god demands reverence, respect and revenge.
I respect the fire. The fire crackles, whispering to me.
The fire has led me this far, and now it has led me to you, Detective Johnson.
I watched him from the window above the shop across the road from his house. He’d moved recently; very recently. Perhaps he was more observant than we’d given him credit for, or perhaps it was just coincidence. It didn’t matter, even if he knew he was being followed, we’d still catch him. Nobody was beyond her reach. No matter where you went, she would find you. No matter how you hid, you would be exposed, in the light of the flames.
His crimes would be punished, just like everyone else’s. The metropolitan police had tried unsuccessfully to suppress the stories. The tampering of evidence, the use of unauthorised outside consultants, the manhandling of rebuked criminals. Most of it had been swept under the rug -but there was one thing they couldn’t keep quiet no matter how hard they tried- and this all related to a girl named Jenny Underwood.
There he was, sitting alone in his armchair, like he did every night. A lonely existence; he’d been there for hours, sitting in that same position, his eyes glued to the television. Soon, his eyes would begin to drop, and shortly after he’d make his way to bed.
I wondered how he dealt with the guilt. The shame of knowing you were responsible for the death of a child. Maybe he thought that his work as a detective made him immune to culpability. People in power often feel that way; as if they can circumvent responsibility, because the end always justifies the means. I used to think that way, until she taught me the truth.
Lock it up in a box in your head and drop it into the void. Get rid of it entirely. Cut it off.
I couldn’t contain my guilt forever. It was only so long before the void opened its jaws and devoured me. The fire would consume me eventually. Until then, I would play my part.
As the chill of the evening began to settle in, his eyes fluttered shut for a moment. They snapped open again, and he made his way wearily up the stairs. It was time for action. I climbed down from the roof, jumping down into the brush behind the corner shop. The cameras were cut, but to be doubly sure, I meandered through the back alleys to get to the back of the house. I pulled myself up over the back wall, and slid the key we’d cut earlier into the lock, silently opening the back door. I removed my shoes, and softly made my way up the stairs towards the bedroom. I pushed the door open slowly, scanning my eyes across the room to find it completely empty.
“Stay exactly where you are, do not move.” The voice came from behind me.
“Put your hands in the air.”
I pottered about the yard, watering the plants. It was difficult to keep the wide variety of endemic Maltese flora flourishing, especially at this time of the year. I’d had to import some special fertilizer in order to give the bulbs the best chance of germination. It was hard to get the right type of fertilizer in England, so I had to import it.
Despite the poor weather, business had begun to pick up gradually. I was relieved to see that there were still people who appreciated the reverent nature of flowers. There’d been a wedding in the church down the road a couple of days ago, which had accounted for the majority of the week’s earnings; a welcome change from what had seemed like an endless slew of funerals in the months previously.
The bell above the door jingled, and I could hear the door creaking open. I put down the watering can and made my way through the kitchen and back to the shop front where Richard was waiting for me with a serious but optimistic look on his face.
“We’ve got him.” He said calmly.
“The burnt man?” I asked.
“We set a trap,” he explained “and he took the bait.”
“What trap?” I asked.
He grinned, “I’ll explain on the way to the station.”
Richard’s driving was slightly more erratic than usual. I could see in his eyes that he was cautiously excited at the opportunity to question the burnt man. He’d explained to me in short detail how he’d managed to apprehend him.
“So who is he?” I asked.
“That’s where we’re struggling.” He explained, “His fingerprints have been all but burned away, and he won’t talk to anyone properly -save for a few jumbled phonemes- and the repeated assertion that he is nobody.”
“An attempt to plead insanity, maybe?” I suggested.
“It seems like an attempt to eschew blame.” He replied, “We’re conducting other tests to find out who he is, but they’re going to take some time before they come back.”
I breathed deeply, delaying the inevitable question; the reason Richard had asked me to come along with him.
“You want me to talk with him.” I said, “Isn’t that right?”
Richard paused, peering across at me whilst gripping the steering wheel firmly.
“Nobody understands the psychology of an arsonist like you do.” He explained, “If you could just talk to him for a while –try to get some information out of him- maybe you can shed some light on who he is.”
I looked at his eyes through the glass; the crystal blue of his corneas, contrasted by the redness that surrounded them. Weary and tired, but piercing through as though he knew I was staring back at him. He was a broken man, a man who had once been so strong and authoritative, now sat before us as a shadow of his former self. His face was pocked with burns and sores, his hands cracked and leathery all the way to the tips. Huge, weeping blisters spread across his palms, like black holes, absorbing the surrounding skin.
I stared deeply into his eyes, unmoving, yet unfocused. The bittersweet smell of lemon, and the rich smell of Maltese Centaury conjured itself suddenly in my nostrils.
Florigera rosis halo.
I perfume the air with my blossoms.
I broke my gaze and turned to face Richard.
“His name is Derrick Fletcher; former probation officer at Attard Psychiatric Hospital in Malta.”
Richard’s eyes widened, “Christine, how can you possibly know that?”
I looked down at my hands, “Because I’ve met him before.”
He squinted at me skeptically, “Where did you meet him?” He asked.
I kept my eyes focused on my hands, crunching them together tightly.
“Christine, were you…” He paused, “Did you spend time there?”
I nodded, looking back up at him.
“When?” he asked softly.
“When I was sixteen… for three years.”
He nodded sympathetically, “I never knew.”
I looked up at him meekly, “I never told anyone.”
“Derrick Fletcher.” I said, pacing about the interrogation chamber.
His unmoving gaze broke as I spoke, looking up at me weakly, like a dog.
“Former guard at Attard Psychiatric Hospital,” I continued, “But you haven’t worked there for many years, have you Derrick?” I asked, “As I recall, there was a big fire. A lot of people died. You were nearly caught in the flames yourself, is that right?”
He swallowed hard, “I’m nobody. I’m nothing.” He muttered.
“It’s easier to say that, isn’t it Derrick?” I said, his eye flitting away from mine, “It’s easier to say that you are nobody; a non-human entity incapable of feeling guilt or remorse. A godless, lifeless golem. It’s easier to be nobody, because nobody doesn’t have to be accountable for their actions.” I turned, stopped pacing and faced him, “But you’re not nobody. You’re Derrick Fletcher, and you are a murderer.”
He looked down at the table, avoiding eye contact, “I am nobody. I am the way the world shaped me.”
“You’re a serial killer, and you’ll be punished in due course. But I do not believe you acted alone. You can play games with me Derrick, but eventually the truth will come out. The only way to allay your guilt, and reduce your sentence, is to confess to your crimes, and to tell us who you have been working for.”
Derrick held his breath for a moment, before exhaling heavily. He looked up into my eyes, and fixed me with a stare.
“I am nobody.”
“There is blood on your hands Derrick,” I said firmly.
“Then we have something in common Detective.” He said, looking up at me through those reddened eyes, “That’s right, I know about Jenny Underwood. That’s why I came for you. That’s why the fire will consume you whole.” He said coldly.
I looked away from him for a moment, “Jenny Underwood?”
“Did you sleep that night? Have you slept since?” He said, squinting at me in disgust.
“What do you know about Jenny Underwood?” I asked.
“I know that she was killed by a drunk driver, Gary Armiston. The driver would have gone to prison, but you deliberately bungled the investigation. You contaminated evidence, tampered with documents. Armiston got off scot free, and for what?”
“You don’t understand…” I said hesitantly.
“I understand,” He spat, “It disgusts me that I understand.”
I shook my head solemnly, “No, you don’t.”
“Armiston offered to pay for your silence. You were in debt at the time, weren’t you? You were about to lose it all -your house, your wife, your children- and taking one little bribe wasn’t going to bring Jenny Underwood back was it?” He said, his mouth seething, “But you lost it all anyway, didn’t you Detective Johnson? It’s all gone now” He said, blue veins bulging on his forehead. “You robbed Armiston of his penance,” he growled “and now you must pay yours.”
I stood silently for a moment, “You really don’t understand, Derrick.” I said, standing before him, “Jenny Underwood. Gary Armiston. They don’t exist. They never existed.”
A tangible silence took hold of the interrogation chamber, as I looked down upon him.
Derrick glared at me maniacally, “You’re lying.”
“We fabricated the stories, the news reports –everything- to draw you in; my superiors strongly disapproved of the action, and didn’t believe it would work, but alas, here you are.” I explained.
Derrick’s eyes sunk to the table.
“But aside from drawing you in to our trap, it has also given us the benefit of eliminating some of the other suspects.” I said, sitting down at the table, “You see Derrick, I don’t believe you’re working alone. I don’t even believe that you’re the one in charge. It had puzzled me previously, as to where you’d managed to obtain the information about your victims. It occurred to me that you might have a contact in law enforcement who was feeding you information, but I know that to be false now.” I explained.
“What do you mean?” he said looking up under furrowed brows.
“Well Derrick,” I explained, “that little story about the fictitious Jenny Underwood was one of many. We disseminated a different story through police files, which suggested that Armiston’s lawyer and I were friends. But you didn’t tell me that story, did you Derrick? So I guess that means that whoever you’re working with does not work in law enforcement.”
Derrick hangs his head low, running his cuffed hands through his hair.
“The story about my crippling debt, and my wife and children, we embedded that story into old newspaper archives online, then resurrected it with a short recap story released in the mainstream papers, stating that the investigation into my supposed corruption had been dropped.” I explained.
Derrick looked across at me, his eyes sunk as he detected no deception in my voice.
I rose from the table, “I’ve brought somebody to see you.”
I motioned to the two-way mirror and a moment later, Christine entered.
As she walked in and sat down, Derrick’s face began to flush with red, and his breathing took on a noticeable pace.
“Derrick Fletcher. Do you remember me?” She asked gingerly.
Derrick began to grind his teeth, “Of course I remember you.”
“Who are you working with Derrick?” She asked curtly.
He clenched his fists tightly, “Nobody.”
“Those burns on your palms are recent, who gave them to you?”
“Nobody.” He grunted loudly.
“Who are you working for Derrick?” She asked sharply, “Who punished you?”
“Penance must always be paid.” He murmured under his breath.
“Who did this to you Derrick?!” She shouted.
“You did this to me!” He cried out, bashing his cuffed wrists against the table, “You made me this way!”
As Derrick was led away from the interrogation room and taken to one of the police vans parked up outside, Richard led me into his office. As an outside consultant, it was very unorthodox to allow me to question a suspect. It was only upon the revelation that I was able to identify him that Richard was able to secure the permission to allow me to speak with him.
For a moment, it had reminded me of the time when I had come to Derrick for my probationary hearing. He’d washed his hands of me, ignored my impassioned pleas for help, and left me in the sociopathic hands of Abigail Percival. The power shift was palpable, but it gave me little joy.
“It’s not uncommon of serial killers to blame their actions on circumstance. They’ll put the blame on their mothers, fathers, or society –anything to avoid culpability. Before Derrick tells us who he’s working with, we need him to admit that he is a part of this.” Richard stated.
“Do you believe he’ll plea insanity?” I asked, looking over the documents.
“I don’t think he’s insane. I think he’s well aware of his actions; under duress, maybe, but insane? Absolutely not.” Richard said with conviction “If he gives us the information we need, and it leads to a conviction, he may get a commuted sentence. It’s clear though that whoever he’s working with –if he is working with somebody else- has managed to psychologically manipulate him to the point of total compliance.”
Our conversation was cut short by the thunderous sound of an explosion outside, and the sound of twisting metal and shattering glass.
“An improvised explosive composed of petrol, propane and ammonium nitrate.” Richard explained.
Somehow I felt safer in the comfort of the shop, surrounded by the vast array of flowers, than I did in the cold white lights of the police station.
“And Derrick Fletcher?” I asked.
“Dead. Along with the two police officers in the van.” Richard said mournfully, “I need your help on this Christine.” He said earnestly.
“If there’s anything I can do to help Richard, you know I’ll do it.” I said openly.
“I’ve been investigating Derrick extensively, along with his career at Attard Psychiatric Hospital.” He explained, “Did you know the place burned down?”
I nodded, “Yes. I heard about that.”
“The fire had burned the Attard Psychiatric Hospital to a shell,” he said, “the source of the fire was unclear, but it was believed to have been electrical. Twenty two patients and six guards died in the blaze, and seventeen others suffered injuries ranging from minor to serious, including Derrick Fletcher, who left shortly afterwards because of his injuries.”
He pulled a photograph out from his pocket, placing it in front of me.
“During your internment, did you know this woman?” He asked.
My stomach tied itself into knots, as I looked upon the sullen face of Abigail Percival for the first time since my internment. The flash of horror on my face was palpable, and I looked away from the image immediately.
“That’s Abigail Percival. She was my case worker.”
Richard nodded, “You knew her well?”
“I knew…” I paused, “I knew more about her than her employers did.”
“Tell me a bit about her.” He asked.
I took a deep breath, “She was a barbarous woman. She tortured me, physically, emotionally. She did not believe in psychology, she only believed in punishing those she believed had escaped punishment.”
Richard looked across at me, “The mentally ill?” he asked, compassion exuding from his eyes.
“Exactly. She didn’t believe in mental illness. She believed it was an excuse to get out of paying penance.” I said, my voice trembling slightly.
Richard studied her image for a moment, before resting it on the table.
“When you discovered she died in the fire,” he said, “how did that make you feel?”
“No better, no worse.” I shrugged, “I left Malta as soon as I was discharged and started a new life in England. I left Abigail in the past, and I’ve never visited Malta since.” I said, “Apart from the bulbs and the odd bag of fertilizer I import from there, I have no connection to the place whatsoever.”
Richard closed his eyes, absorbing this information.
“How would you feel then, if I told you that Abigail Percival’s body was never recovered?”
My eyes widened, “Are you saying she’s still alive?” I asked, the knot in my stomach twisting tighter than before.
“I’m saying she’s alive, and she’s living in England,” he said gravely, “and she’s making people pay penance in a manner she sees fit.” He continued, “and if she knows you’re here, she’ll come looking for you, and for me.”
The knot in my stomach rose to my throat, manifesting itself in a dull ache. My cheeks became hot and my eyes began to water. I closed them tightly, letting out a deep sob.
“It’s okay Christine,” He said, putting his arm on my shoulder to comfort me, “It’s okay.”
“From what you’ve told me Christine,” Richard explained, “And from what I’ve learned about Abigail Percival’s history,” He continued, “It seems like she has –on some level- come to realise that penance must be paid for her own abusive actions towards those in her care.”
I nodded, dabbing my tears with a tissue.
“Her twisted psyche has led her to believe that she can justify her sadism by channelling it into –what she would consider- a noble cause.”
“A noble cause?” I asked incredulously “What part of burning people alive is noble?”
“People do it all of the time. People want to believe that their actions are for the greater good, that they’re part of something bigger than themselves. They channel their cruelty into furthering a cause that they believe to be beneficial. I see it everywhere; whether its football hooligans fighting for their team or a group of white supremacists beating the shit out of an immigrant. None of it is for the greater good; they don’t really believe that what they’re doing is right. It’s an opportunity to satiate their bloodlust whilst hiding behind an agenda. It seems that society can tolerate violence –just about- if we believe there was some kind of reason for it, no matter how illogical that reason may be.”
I nodded, “Well Richard,” I said, “You caught Derrick. How do we catch Abigail?”
“A sting operation won’t work twice. She’ll be wise to the trick now.” He explained, “We need to take a simpler approach. We need to complete the puzzle. There are still pieces missing.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You said a few weeks ago that the causal link between the victims was that they were abusing their power.” Richard said, rubbing his chin, “What I’m wondering is –for many of the abusers- the details of their abuse only became known after they were killed; how did Abigail know about their actions?”
“Why do you do this to me?” I pleaded with her.
With her knees pressed roughly into my shoulders, she pushed her palm into my forehead roughly. The cold of the granite floor ached my back and shoulders.
“I told you to shut up, 141.” She said, baring her teeth and holding the pliers to my face, “Now open your mouth.”
“Why won’t you leave me alone? What did I do to you?” I screamed.
“What did you do to me?” She laughed, “Your father never loved you more than those damn dried flowers, did he?” She said, gripping my incisor with the pliers.
“Silly little girl, and you’re asking me for mercy? Did you show your father any mercy when you burned his flowers? Did you cry when he came to the window, screaming, the smoke and flames consuming the building around him?”
Tears ran down my face as she roughly pulled out my incisor.
“Penance Christine.” She spat, as blood poured from my gums into the back of my mouth.
“You lunatics think you can escape it, but you can’t. Everybody has to pay the price. There’s no hope for you, no hope for the future, without penance.”
She forced my mouth open once more, gripping another tooth with the pliers.
She met me at the gate of the house. Once again, this was not a formal interview as such. In my professional experience, I’d often found that the cold white lights of an interrogation room led people to answer questions in a cold and calculated way. The subtle nuance of emotion was stripped away, leaving questions answered in an almost quantitative fashion. Of course, the law stated that in order to take anything as evidence, I had to carry out the round of questioning under these conditions, which is why I kept this interview off the books.
I greeted her at the gate, and thanked her for arranging to meet me on such short notice. The Jack Russell she had on the leash yapped at me excitedly as she made her way through the gate. I walked alongside her, her strides were brisk initially, but began to slow into an easy wander as the conversation transpired.
“I wanted to talk to you about you son Dylan, if that’s okay with you.” I said, careful to avoid the Jack Russel, who seemed to have a habit of getting under my feet.
“You’re a detective aren’t you?” She asked.
“Detective Richard Johnson,” I explained.
“Did you ever work the beat?” She asked.
“For seven years.” I explained, “Started out in Alnwick, then I was transferred to Liverpool, and finally here.”
“That’s fascinating.” She said, pulling the Jack Russel away from the edge of the curb, “Ever beat a suspect with a truncheon?” She asked.
I blinked in disbelief, “No. I never needed to.”
She sneered at me in mistrust, “You’re telling me then –Detective Johnson- that you never used force to subdue a suspect?”
“I certainly used restraint.” I explained, “But I found the truncheon was somewhat unnecessary, not when you have a far more powerful weapon at your disposal.”
“What? A Taser?” she asked.
“Never used one of those either. Not sure I’d know how to. I’d probably end up getting it wet and shocking myself.” I explained, “No, the most powerful weapon in a police officer’s arsenal is the word please.”
She frowned at me, “Please?” She laughed, “So you’re telling me you apprehended all of your suspects by asking them politely to comply with you?”
“It’s about respect.” I explained, “If you show respect, you will be respected. If you are respected, people will comply, criminal or not.”
She tugged on the leash tightly, yanking the Jack Russel away from the curb once more.
I looked at her, “So, I’m asking you now, in your own time,” She stopped walking, looking at me intently “Can we can talk about your son Dylan… Please.”
I looked at Dylan’s headstone. The flowers still fresh from the last time they’d been placed.
“He was struck down in the prime of life, at the hands of some overzealous copper.” She spat,
“Such a smart boy, handsome too. He’d just been accepted to Northumbria University. His father said he should have applied to a red brick university, but I didn’t care. He was going to university, which was more than his useless father ever did.”
I looked down at the Jack Russel, who sat in silence, as if he knew to pay reverence.
“When I heard about Constable Matheson dying in a house fire… I can’t tell you I felt better. I hoped that I would, but it didn’t bring my Dylan back.” She explained.
I looked down at the flowers, blooming in orange, yellow and pink; an unusually colourful bouquet to be placed on a grave.
“As you may be aware, Constable Matheson’s death was a homicide. There must have been somebody who knew about your son’s death and his connection to Constable Matheson. Can you think of any link between them? Anyone you may have spoken to about it?”
She bent down and plucked up the bouquet in her hands, brushing away some of the bits of dirt and dust that had accumulated on it.
“I don’t think there’s anyone I didn’t speak to about it.”
I spent the whole night going through the records of Doctor Cellarman’s patients; the ones who had died in his care. Over the years the many years of practice, the numbers reached almost 200. Who knew how many were murders? They came from all over the country, but the ones I was most interested in were the ones from this particular area. My father was a bricklayer, but he taught me more about being a good detective than anybody else; he always said that if you believed something, you should do everything in your power to try to prove it was untrue, and if you didn’t believe something, work your hardest to make it true.
That was my fundamental approach to investigation. That was the reason I spent the whole night driving around Walthamstow like a lunatic. In the last five years, there had been four Walthamstow residents in Cellarman’s long-term care, all of whom had died of natural causes, according to the death certificates.
I drove to Walthamstow Cemetery. It was getting late, and the bitter rain was pushing me to delay this until tomorrow, but I knew I had to know if I was right, and I had to know now. I walked through the graves, trying to find the ones on my list. The first three were easy to locate; they all died within six months of each other, and were located on the North Eastern side of the cemetery. The fourth one was the oldest one.
She died five years ago; her grave was located on the Southern side. I shone my torch along the rows of graves until I found it; a grand old marble headstone. I shone my torch down on the headstone. It was as I thought it would be; as I hoped it would not be.
It was the same as the other three.
The shop was getting busier; it seemed that even though the days were getting shorter, people had –in the last few weeks- begun buying more flowers. Everything was selling, even some of the more unusual flowers that my shop was known for stocking.
The bell rang, and I returned to the front desk to see Detective Johnson standing there, with a stoic but calm look upon his face; the same face he made when he knew something that I didn’t.
“Hi Richard!” I said as I approached, “Don’t suppose you’re going to buy anything this time?” I asked.
“Can we talk in privacy Christine?” He asked, his eyebrows furrowed into a deep frown.
“Is it urgent?” I asked, “I’m getting a lot of customers today, so I’d ideally like to keep their custom if possible.”
He closed his eyes for a moment, “It’s urgent.”
“I’ve found the link between the victims.” Richard explained.
“What’s the link?” I asked, leaning forward across the table.
“Derrick Fletcher- after he recovered from his injuries, he left Attard and immigrated to the United Kingdom, where he worked at Hellingly hospital until its closure in 1994, and then he moved to another psychiatric hospital in Sussex.” Richard explained, “During his time in Sussex, he worked with a number of young adults, one of them was a former soldier, by the name of Andrew Perrich. He was discharged on psychological grounds. Guess who his commanding officer had been?”
I already knew the answer, “It was Malcolm Trevalyn. The third victim.”
“Exactly.” Richard nodded, “How much do you bet Andrew told Derrick Fletcher about the beatings he sustained from the other recruits, at the encouragement of Malcolm Trevalyn?”
I nodded, “And the others?”
“Horace Alberforth; the prison warden who was found to have been sexually assaulting prisoners as HMP Durham. He worked directly with Derrick Fletcher for a brief period at the psychiatric hospital in Sussex.” Richard explained, “Matthew Gregory; the teacher who’d been molesting his students. One of his students ended up at that same psychiatric hospital in Sussex. The same goes for Alan Harris, the teacher who is now under supervision in Whipps Cross Hospital. When he recovers, he’ll face charges of child molestation.”
I nodded, “She used Derrick Fletcher for information, to help her decide which victims to choose.”
Richard cleared his throat, “Not entirely.” He said, his voice taking on a sombre tone.
“I could not find a link between Derrick Fletcher and Constable Matheson, or Doctor Cellarman.” He explained, “I couldn’t pinpoint how she found out about the fabricated story about Jenny Underwood either.”
I squinted, “There’s sure to be one,” I explained, “You just have to keep looking.”
“I did however, find an even stranger connection. There was one thing that linked Dylan Morris -the boy who was beaten to death by Constable Matheson- and several of the local victims of Doctor Cellarman.”
I raised my eyebrows, “And what was that?”
“Their graves; they all had the same wreath of flowers on their graves. I heard it’s common to put lilies on the grave of a loved one.” He explained.
“That’s correct, the whiteness of the lily represents purity in death.”
“Yes. This is why I found it strange that the graves of the victims were decorated with quite colourful lilies. Upon closer examination, I found that the lilies in place were Asiatic Lilies. A specific breed of Asiatic lily endemic to Malta.” He explained.
“-A very particular type of flower that cannot be found anywhere in London.” He continued,
“Except right here.”
Detective Johnson stood up. My eyes followed him as he walked across the room and picked up an Asiatic lily from the corner of the room.
“What do you mean Richard?” I asked, my hands trembling.
“I think it’s quite clear what I mean.” He said, clasping the Asiatic lily tightly, “You source many of your flowers from Malta, specifically your birth place of Attard, isn’t that right?”
I nodded meekly, “That doesn’t mean-” I hesitated.
“It doesn’t mean you had anything to do with these crimes. But it did prompt me to investigate you further Christine.” He said returning to the table.
“I found a great deal of information on your former case worker, Abigail Percival, and the patients she dealt with at Attard Psychiatric Hospital.” He said, furrowing his brows.
“You were never discharged, were you Christine?”
It was more of statement than a question. My cheeks flushed red.
“I was discharged. I moved straight to England.”
“Well, according to the official records, you died in the fire.” He said, pulling a photograph from his pocket.
“This,” He said, lying the photograph on the table, “Is your charred body.”
I looked down, wincing at the image of the charred body.
The mouth was open, the jaw askew, jagged teeth pointed in different directions.
“Your death was confirmed through your dental records.” He stated.
I clutched at Richard’s hand, “Richard, no.” I pleaded, “It’s a setup. Abigail set this all up.”
“The bomb that killed Derrick Fletcher was an improvised explosive set to detonate when the engine started. It was made using petrol, propane, and ammonium nitrate.” He explained.
“That could have come from anywhere!” I explained.
“Yes, but it didn’t come from anywhere Christine, the ammonium nitrate came from fertilizer. A certain kind of fertilizer specially designed to grow specific flowers, like the ones of Maltese origin you grow and sell. It’s the same kind of fertilizer you have stockpiled in your inventory.”
“Richard, you have to believe me, I had nothing to do with these murders.”
“Christine.” He said bluntly, “I want to believe you. I want to believe you’re innocent. That’s why I chased these leads, followed them up. I did it because I wanted to prove beyond any doubt, that you are innocent.”
He releases my hand from his, pointing to the photograph on the table once more.
“The teeth on this charred body, notice here how the lateral incisor overlaps the central incisor?” He said, pointing to the charred open mouth.
“Notice how the first premolar is jutting out ahead of the second premolar? This is because these teeth have been forcibly planted into the mouth. This was the body of Abigail Percival, mutilated to look like you, and then burned beyond recognition.”
The pain was unbearable. The ebb and flow of my consciousness faded in and out, and every time I came around, coughing up the blood that leaked from my gums, she was there, standing over me with those pliers in her hand, and my teeth at her feet.
After an hour of passing out and coming around, I found the strength to stand. I looked at her. I looked at the pliers. I looked at my teeth. I looked at the blood.
“Got something to say?” She smirked, baring her teeth once more.
I spat a wad of blood onto the granite floor.
“Didn’t think so.”
I inhaled, preparing myself. I opened my mouth to speak, moving my tongue to flesh out the words, but all I could manage was an inaudible gurgle.
“What was that 141? You’ve had enough?”
I swallowed the blood, tasting her cruelty on my tongue. I inhaled through my nose, but no blossoms perfumed the air, just the musky coppery smell of fresh blood.
I charged across my cell, slamming her back against the wall. The surprise knocked her off her feet, her head crashed into the wall. I dragged her through the puddle of blood, sitting down on top of her; I grabbed the pliers and swung them into her face. The dull crack of metal against bone reverberated through the air. She yelped in pain. I drove my hand into her mouth, gripping her lower jaw and tearing at it, splitting her cheeks apart.
I gripped her head, slamming it against the ground over and over again until her body fell limp and weak.
It took me over an hour to ply all of her teeth out. The first two took the longest, the rest took less time. It took me just half an hour to plant all of my teeth into her mouth. By the time I was finished, she was a mess of gore, lying in a crumpled heap on the floor. I reached into her pocket, I pulled her phone free, popped the lithium ion battery from its case. I drove the pliers into the battery, perforating it. I carefully placed the tips of the pliers on the positive and negative ions. At once, sparks flew from the battery, igniting the lithium. I pulled her clothing to one side, setting it alight.
As the alarms rang and the Attard psychiatric hospital began to evacuate, I escaped from my prison of three years, with Abigail Percival’s clothing covering my face. They’d say it was for protection from smoke inhalation –that’s how most people die in fires- not Abigail though, she was consumed by the fire; swallowed up in the flames of penance. I hoped, secretly, that she’d regained consciousness before the flames burned her up. I hoped that her last thoughts were of me, and the cruelties she’d inflicted on me, coming back upon her like a fiery revenant, burning her flesh in the name of the penance she loved so much.
As I fled from Attard, I turned to watch the place burn in my wake. The smell of thick black smoke hung in the air, and it would cling to the air rebelliously for days to come.
Florigera Rosis Halo.
I perfume the air with my blossoms.
“It wasn’t me Richard!” She wailed, standing up from the table and backing away, “I didn’t kill anyone!”
“Then come with me to the station Christine. If you’re truly innocent, then your innocence will be proven in time.”
“You’re going to arrest me?”
“I have to arrest you Christine. I have to take you in for your own safety if nothing else.”
“This is a setup, don’t you see that?” She screamed, “Abigail has set all of this up, she said she’d never leave me, she said I could never escape her. This is all part of her plan to torture me.”
“Abigail didn’t kill those people Christine, you did.” I stated, rising from my chair.
“You’ve got it all wrong, can’t you see that?” She said, backing away from me, “I’m not getting into any police car with you, not after the last one exploded.” She said hurriedly, “I don’t trust it, not after Derrick.”
I walked across to the table, looking up at the cotton flag embroidered on the wall; an equilateral cross, made up of five squares, four blue, and one central red square- the flag of Attard.
“Florigera Rosis Halo…” I said, reading the Latin words written under the flag, “I perfume the air with my blossoms.” I continued, “The traditional Attard motto. That’s what it means, isn’t it?”
She backed away as I approached.
“Your father considered himself one of the original Saraċini, He took great pride in collecting all of the flowers of Malta. Hundreds of dried flowers delicately arranged and pressed under glass. It must have been quite the collection.”
“Stop it Richard, just stop it.” She said, pushing herself back into the corner of the room against the drawers.
“-But flowers don’t smell as sweet when they’re dried out and pressed under glass. They needed to be free, needed to be released from their prison.” I said, stepping forwards, “They needed to perfume the air -as they had once before- they needed to burn.”
She clapped her hands over her ears and began chanting rhythmically, “I can’t hear it. I can’t hear it. I can’t hear it.”
“You can hear it!” I barked, pulling her hands away from her ears, “You will hear it.”
I released her hands as she crumbled to the floor, curling up in the foetal position, rocking lightly, whimpering and whispering to herself.
“The truth is Christine –you wanted me to catch you. You wanted me to capture you so that you’d have to face up to the horrors you’ve inflicted on the world.”
Her whimpering petered out into silence, and the rocking subsided. At once, she unfurled her body, stretching out on the floor, before rising to her feet. She stood before me, looking up at me; her entire visage had altered. Her face was contorted into a snarl, her lip curling up, baring her teeth.
“Christine is dead.” She spits, “She died in the fire she started, consumed by the flames, the same fate she bestowed upon her father.”
I looked down at Christine, her eyes pierced mine, carrying in her gaze a full-blooded hatred I’d never seen in her before.
“Penance for her crimes. Penance must always be paid.”
Her voice sounded icy, crueler than I’d ever heard it.
“Christine…” I said, raising my hands defensively.
“Christine is dead!” She spat, “You can call me Abigail Percival.”
“You’re not Abigail Percival.” I said, “You killed her.”
I looked into the eyes of the woman I thought I knew, and saw nothing of the person she once was.
“There is no Christine…” She said, snarling like an animal.
“No.” I said, “Of course not. Christine couldn’t do those things. She couldn’t bring herself to burn, and kill and torture. That’s why she created Abigail, the personification of the cruelty she experienced in Attard manifested in a separate part of her psyche, adopting the name of her former tormentor.”
She looked up at me bitterly, “The flames whisper to me.”
“Through Abigail, she could commit atrocities without the burden of guilt. She could kill without remorse. She could even pretend to herself that it was justified.”
“The flames are alive, and I follow the will of the flame…”
“So it’s the fire itself that’s responsible for the horrors that have unfolded? Is that what you’re saying Abigail?” I asked, “I don’t believe the flames are alive. I believe that we are alive, and we make our own choices. You couldn’t live with yours, could you Christine?”
In a flash, she reached behind her and grabbed a vial containing a clear liquid, removed the rubber lid, and threw it towards me.
I put up my hands in defence, batting the vial away. Liquid splashed over my palms, searing my flesh. I fled from the room, the pain was excruciating as the liquid corroded my flesh. I could smell the liquid; Hydrofluoric Acid. I ran through to the kitchen, knocking bouquets of flowers over. I threw open the cupboard, snatching a container of Bicarbonate of Soda and tipping it over my hands. The powder mixed with the acid and began to neutralise the burn. I turned the tap on, running my hands under the cold water.
I panted deeply; the burning sensation began to fade. It could have been the acid neutralising, or nerve damage. I looked around the kitchen; all the lights were off, and the evening was creeping into night. She was nowhere to be seen. If she was wise, she would use this opportunity to flee. With my hands incapacitated, it would be difficult to call for backup.
I looked down at my hands, sores had begun to form on them, and the redness of the bare flesh underneath was showing through, a grisly reminder of the damage the acid had done. I looked up, as a light caught the corner of my eye, and the smell of thick smoke hung in my nostrils.
The kitchen led directly to the garden outside, where Christine grew her Maltese flowers. The door was locked at the top and the bottom with rusty deadbolts. I reached up, my hands still wet, grabbing one of the deadbolts and pulling it to one side. The deadbolt stung at the sores in my hands. I supposed there wasn’t any nerve damage after all. Thick smoke began to flow into the kitchen as I bent down to unlock the bottom deadbolt. This one was tougher than the other, wedged firmly in the lock; I kicked at the door frantically trying to loosen the lock. I could feel the heat from the advancing blaze approaching from behind.
With a sharp final kick, the deadbolt came loose. I gripped the door handle and tugged rapidly. The door wouldn’t move. I coughed and spluttered on the smoke as it forced its way into my lungs. The door must have been locked from the outside. I slammed my shoulder into the door, the wood creaked, but the door remained intact.
I could hear the crackling of the fire, as it made its way into the kitchen. I turned, looking through the thick smoke to see the flames licking the ceiling of the kitchen, crawling towards me. The heat was unbearable, scorching my skin. I slammed my shoulder into the door, and the wood splintered and gave way. I crashed to the floor amongst the plants, as the backdraught of air caused a plume of fire to erupt from the door above my head.
I rose to a half-stand, stumbling away from the fire, coughing and spluttering. The smoke burned my eyes; I clenched them tight, and then stumbled over a set of cans, crashing back down to the floor amongst the potted flowers. I wiped my eyes, looking across at the cans which were rolling across the back yard.
I’d seen those cans before; they were the same cans that had been attached to the police car before it exploded.
My hands burned. The pain was immeasurable. I shut it out, isolating the pain and pushing it down deep. The fire brigade had arrived, and were tackling the fire. The flames had been extinguished, giving way to smouldering ashes. The paramedics on the scene had come to my aid, but I insisted they deal with the people filing out of the houses either side of the shop. Some were being treated for mild smoke inhalation.
I’d instructed the fire brigade to focus on the back garden. If the fire spread to those cans, there’d be no hope of putting the fire out in time.
Against all temptation, I’d resisted the pain killers they’d offered me. I sat in my car, gripping the steering wheel with all the force I could muster. I had to be the one to bring her in, it had to be me. Only I would be able to apprehend her. I knew exactly where she’d be heading to, and I had to get there fast. Painkillers would impair my driving skills, and a squadron of police cars would only cause her to flee.
I started the engine, gripping the steering wheel tightly; I exhaled, burying the pain down deep.
I knew where she was; she was going to finish the job, she was going to kill Alan Harris. She was going to Whipps Cross Hospital.
I pushed the car into gear and stamped on the accelerator.
I parked the car around the corner from Whipps Cross Hospital. She’d flee if she knew I was coming. I remembered the ward he was on when I’d visited him for questioning; owing to the fact that he was now a secure patient, it was likely he’d been moved.
If I didn’t know where he was, Christine didn’t know either. I looked the building up and down. Alan Harris would be guarded at all times, not just to stop him from trying to leave, but also to protect him from danger.
If Christine wanted to flush him out, the easiest way would be to set the fire alarm off. Surely she knew that for a hospital with one of the busiest A&E departments in the country, she would need to do more than just smash the glass.
The basement could be accessed through a door on hospital road, directly underneath the A&E. I ran around the side of the maternity ward, and found the entrance.
The canisters were placed all around the basement in a seemingly random order. There were dozens of them. If two of them had been enough to destroy a police van, how much damage would this cause?
She stood in the centre, tipping a Gerry can of petrol throughout the basement.
I walked out into the centre of the room.
“It won’t work, Christine.” I said, beads of sweat pouring down my forehead.
She glared at me, “Detective Johnson, I’m glad you made it in time.”
“These canisters; they contain ammonium nitrate, propane and petrol, isn’t that right?”
“Fire by any name,” She glints “would burn as bright.”
I shook my head softly, “Not this time Christine.” I said, “This isn’t nearly enough explosive to penetrate these concrete walls.”
She bared her teeth wickedly, “Would you care to find out?”
“You know this Christine,” I stated, “You know these bombs won’t kill anybody but yourself.”
I stepped into the puddles of petrol, slowly making my way towards her.
“But maybe that’s what you want…” I said, “You wanted to be captured. You want to be killed. You want to pay penance for your crimes.”
She dropped the Gerry can to the ground, pulling a stove lighter from her pocket.
“Everyone has penance to pay.” She grimaced.
“And what of those new-born children in the maternity ward next door?” I asked, “Do they owe their lives to the fire too?”
She teased her finger over the ignition, “If it is the fire’s will to consume them,” she spoke, “then they will be consumed.”
“The fire will not absolve you Christine,” I said, approaching her, “The crimes you’ve committed will be carried with you to your grave and beyond. You won’t be remembered for the penance you’ve paid, but for the injustices you’ve inflicted, the cruelties you’ve committed.”
I stood, a metre away from her, the thick smell of petrol soaking into my brain, disconnecting my senses.
“You think I want to be absolved?” she laughed cruelly, “In ancient Egypt, Damnatio Memoriae was a fate worse than death. To die, and be forgotten, scrubbed from the history books, was considered the highest dishonour.” She said, brandishing the lighter like a sword, “Was Doctor Cellarman absolved? Was Horace Alberforth absolved? In death, they were criminals, and that’s how they’ll be remembered for eternity.”
“That’s not how I’d remember you Christine.” I said earnestly.
She glared at me, under a heavy frown, “You’ll die with me in this basement.”
“What happened to you in Attard was awful. No young girl should have to endure what you endured.” I state, “But it does not absolve you from the things you’ve done.”
The lighter wobbled as her hands trembled
“You were a victim for so long,” I continued, “there was always something within you to become the victor. But you couldn’t forgive yourself Christine. For starting the fire that killed your father, for burning down the psychiatric hospital in Attard. So you buried it deep in your subconscious. You swallowed it up into the void. But nothing stays buried for too long, and from your guilt, and your hate, and your fear, a vengeful revenant rose.”
Sweat began to pour from her forehead, as her index finger hovered over the ignition switch.
“I’ll do it. I’ll burn this place to the ground!” She wailed.
“Do it then,” I said, “But if you must take one thing with you to the world beyond, take these words…”
She looked up at me, her eyes glistening with tears.
“I forgive you.”
The officer driving the van looked across at me, noticing my reddened eyes and slouching posture. We pulled out of hospital road, and drove along towards the police station.
“That was very brave of you.” The officer spoke.
My eyes were unfocussed, staring into the ether of nothingness.
“Did she come quietly?” He asked, “Or did you have to restrain her?” He looked at me, imploring me to answer.
I sat in silence, unwilling to answer any of the constable’s questions. I looked down at the blisters on my hands. They’d begun to swell, and almost looked as if they were putrefying, but there was no pain. I felt nothing in my hands, or anywhere else.
“You’re lucky to be alive, Detective Johnson.” He said.
“It’s just Richard now,” I stated solemnly, “I think I’m going to retire now.”
The officer’s eyes widened, “Listen… Richard.” He said softly, “Don’t make any rash decisions just yet.”
“I’m just so tired of it all.” I sighed.
The officer nodded, “I suppose this is one of those ‘stop and smell the roses’ moments.” He said, “Makes you appreciate how short life really is.”
“Fuck the roses.” I grunted, closing my eyes and letting them hang shut.
I looked down at my shackled hands as the van trundled along to its destination.
This was it; my penance. Three years in Attard was never enough to cure my fascination with fire. All those years ago, as I stood in Wied Irmiedi among the white poplar trees, I watched my house burn.
The flames were mesmeric, the particles of ash, floating listlessly in the sky, breaking themselves apart on the white poplar trees, spreading across the Valley of Ashes.
The flames licked the sky, convection currents punching up into the night sky, giving flight to the embers of the house. Even the screams of my family, as they were devoured by the flames did nothing to break my gaze from the flames.
As the fire burned down to a smoulder, and the sun began to rise above the white ashes of my family home, I broke down in tears. Tears flowed from my eyes ceaselessly, splashing to the ground and intermingling with the ash and soot. To this day, I do not know if I was mourning the loss of my family, or the loss of the fire; that magnificent golden dragon that for one night only rose into the sky and dominated the Valley of Ashes.
My handcuffs were tight. Johnson had cuffed me immediately after I dropped the lighter. He was right; nothing I had done, nor could ever hope to do, could ever right the wrongs I’d committed. No amount of penance could ever rewrite those pages; the ink was dry, and scribed in blood.
What was left of me? Fragments of two personalities smashed together, and then brutally ripped apart. Was there anything good within me? Were there monsters lurking within the deeper recesses of my psyche?
I was not Abigail. No, Abigail was long dead. I knew that because I killed her. But I was not Christine. She was dead too. She died a long time ago, in a prison in Attard.
With cuffed hands, I reached down and removed my mobile phone from my leg strap. I kept it there just in case I got mugged. I flipped it over in my hands and pushed open the back. I removed the lithium ion battery, and placed it carefully on my knee. With one swift movement, I drove the edge of the handcuff into it, breaking the battery. Gas began to exude from the battery; that rotten smell of lithium.
I pressed the metal of the handcuffs to the positive and negative points on the battery, shorting the circuit. The battery sparked, igniting the lithium and catching fire.
The petrol fumes that had absorbed into my clothes would catch quickly, and soon I would erupt into a fireball.
Maybe the fire would burn away the cruelty within me, destroying it forever, leaving nothing but purity and goodness. Maybe the fire would burn away the weakness in me, and I would rise from the ashes stronger than before.
I looked down at the flames, baring my teeth and grinning wickedly, as a trail of flame began to race up my leg.
I could smell nothing but smoke and the smell of searing flesh.
I perfume the air with my blossoms.
© JC Axe 2016