With all of us standing in the yard, John said to me, “All right. Get everything you care about out of this house. I’ll get my lighter. Do you know what your insurance policy says about intentional fires?”
Falconer said, “Shut up. Don’t do anything. Let me think.” He dug a phone from his pocket. “I’m going to let you in on a secret. The whole world is not against you. We’ve got help in this town, pros who actually get paid to worry about public safety. I’ve got a fed hotline number they gave us, I dial it and describe what I’ve seen here and they’ll have this place surrounded and locked down in ten minutes. I’ll tell them what you told me and we’ll all figure it out like professionals. I’m tellin’ you, there’s a whole non–white trash world out there, fellas.”
Studying the ragged gouge in my forearm, I said, “You still don’t, uh, fully understand the situation, detective. There’s a reason we didn’t just do that from the start. There are … let’s just say some powerful people who not only know what’s going on in this town, but kind of get off on it.”
“What we’re saying,” added John, “is that the whole world is in fact against us.”
I said, “But either way, I’m gonna go gather up my stuff. I’m obviously not staying in this infested shithole.” To John, “You got room in your trunk, right?”
“How about we go up to the burrito stand after this?”
“I was five seconds away from saying the same thing.”
Falconer had turned his attention to his phone call. He was still alert, though. I got the feeling the man was alert when he was fast asleep. This would be a delicate operation.
Studying the floor for any signs of wiggling, I hurried through the house and returned to the yard with my laptop, a garbage bag full of clothes I pulled from the dryer and a mostly full bottle of Grey Goose I found in the freezer. I grabbed a half-full bag of dog food from the kitchen, in case Molly showed up again.
I declared my packing finished and started to leave, then felt like slapping myself when I realized what I had almost forgotten.
On the wall of my living room was the one contribution Amy had made to the decor: a velvet Jesus painting that looked like it had been copied from an airbrush job on the back of a van, in the dark. It had belonged to her parents, who had probably bought it off of some roadside stand in New Mexico. Amy’s parents were gone, however, and this terrible painting was one of the only things she’d kept from their old house. I grabbed it off the wall and took one last look around. The rest of my stuff could pretty much go.
Outside, Falconer was putting away his phone and I said to him, “Come around back, I need to show you something. In the toolshed.”
“What is it?”
“Well, I don’t know what it is. That’s the point. I think you need to see it before the feds get here though.” To John I said, “Can you put my stuff in your trunk? I want to show him the box.”
John dug out his keys and started unlocking his trunk. I led Falconer around the yard, to the still-open shed. I gestured toward the green box on the gravel floor, at those weird hieroglyphic symbols across the front.
“Pretty weird, huh? Found it.”
“It can’t be opened. Not by you and not by me. We’ve only had it open once and what’s in there is weird as shit.”
“Okay, well, I’ll show it to the feds when they get here—”
From the shelf Elmo said, “Eight inches erect!”
“—But I’m not clear how this is relevant to…”
Falconer stopped, probably because, like me, he smelled smoke. He gave me a look that would have made cancer apologize, then ran like hell. Falconer rounded the house in time to see John emerge from the front door with his “lighter,” a Vietnam-era flamethrower he had bought off eBay. Completely legal, by the way.
Behind him, flames were turning the rest of my worldly possessions into smoke and ash.
Falconer clinched his jaw and said, “Oh, you stupid white trash fucks. What have you done?”
I said, “We’ve taken care of the problem, is what we’ve done. Same as always. There was nothing for the cops to do here. Or the National Guard or anybody else.”
Sirens rose up in the background. I’ve got to say, nobody reacts faster than the fire department.
Falconer grabbed me, spun me around, and for the second time slapped on handcuffs. I could not have cared less. I felt relief for the first time in two days. All-consuming flames roared through the infested house, and the whole ordeal was finally over. Franky and the spider larvae would burn, and there would be no outbreak.
10 Minutes Prior to Outbreak
Falconer’s Porsche sat so low to the ground that I had to squat to get into it. The interior smelled like the leather shop at the mall. I saw I had dragged some muddy leaves from outside onto the spotless carpet and I felt like I had desecrated it. How could you drive a car like this without going crazy with worry? How could you eat a burrito in this thing? You’d be in constant fear of squirting refried beans everywhere. I have no idea how he afforded such a car and I thought it would be impolite to ask. Maybe he sold drugs on the side.
I sat awkwardly, the handcuffs digging into my lower back. I could see my bedroom window from where the Porsche was parked, orange flames licking up behind the glass, eating the curtains.
On the sidewalk in front of the Porsche sat John, another set of handcuffs holding his hands behind his back (actually, he got those white plastic zip tie cuffs—I got the metal ones, so clearly Falconer recognized me as the more dangerous suspect). John was watching my house burn to the ground as a dozen firefighters rolled out hoses from the two trucks. It was strangely serene. If this ordeal had been a movie, this would play under the credits.
But Falconer was pissed. He was moving from one fireman to the next, flashing his badge and shouting for them to back off. They were doing no such thing. I had gathered from Munch (John’s friend, bandmate and part-time fireman) that neither cops nor firefighters take kindly to the other group telling them how to do their jobs. This was a fire, they were firefighters, and by God they were going to put that shit out.
Neighbors were gathering. House fires are already good entertainment in a neighborhood like this, where the primary forms of recreation are drinking alcohol and inventing excuses to keep the unemployment benefits coming, but the address made this one a bigger deal. They knew who lived here. Everyone had heard the rumors. I saw two people filming the scene with their phones.
Another fire truck pulled up and one of the crew went up to John. I recognized Munch Lombard in his firefighting garb, his neck tattoos making him look less like a fireman and more like the lead singer in a novelty rap/metal band with a firefighter theme, maybe named something like Fahrenheit 187. The two men were having a surprisingly casual conversation, considering one of them was sitting on the ground in handcuffs and behind the other was a raging inferno slowly transmitting a bungalow into the atmosphere via a thick column of black smoke. Water arced into the air from one of the hoses. My bedroom window exploded and fingers of fire clawed at the siding, leaving blackened marks behind.
Falconer was on his phone again. More rubberneckers showed up. None of it mattered. At the end of the day, all that happened was Franky had a bad encounter with something nasty. Something Undisclosed. One of the risks of the job in this town. Some people got hurt, but now Franky was dead and the nasty things inside him were disintegrating in a twelve-hundred-degree house-sized blast furnace. As for Detective Lance Falconer, well, he was good and pissed, probably because his evidence was going up in smoke with it. He’d probably push to get John and me charged with two dozen crimes, everything from obstructing a police investigation to public nudity. Let him. It’d come to nothing. The chief knew what town he worked in. Sure, he’d put somebody on the case, then come back a month later and tell the prosecutor there’s not enough to take to court. Then it’d all quietly go away. Again. I’d been through all this before. Nobody wants what goes on in this town to get out. They’ll sweep it under the rug. Just like the incident with the pizza delivery guy—I take a few hours of mandated counseling, and in exchange I don’t tell people what’s really going on and start a panic.
I watched flames dance in every window in front of me. The house burning down wasn’t even that big of a deal in my life. I could stay at John’s place until I found an apartment or trailer somewhere. Besides, I still owned the hunk of land the house was about to fertilize with its ashes. Could sell that for a couple thousand dollars at least, right? See? Everything would be fine. My eyes slipped closed. So little sleep in those thirty-plus hours since the bedspider showed up.
My phone screamed, from my jacket pocket. That had to be Amy, since the only other person who ever called me was sitting on the sidewalk with his hands cuffed behind his back. As were mine, so the phone would just have to ring.
Something caught my attention outside.
Just around the corner from the bedroom, a firefighter was on the ground. Laying facedown, in the grass. I was about to yell at one of the firemen standing around to go help, but another guy was already heading over there. He got his companion up on his knees, but he was clutching his throat. Probably just swallowed some smoke. Or ate something too fast.
Nobody else was coming to help because out front, things were getting complicated.
A city cop car got there first, making a total of six vehicles parked along the street including my truck and John’s Caddie. An RV with a square blue logo on the side trailed right behind it, what I assumed was from the “feds” Falconer mentioned. I guessed the Centers for Disease Control. I suddenly realized how much inconvenience this whole thing had caused a lot of people.
Out from the RV filed guys in those white space suits they use to protect themselves from germs, with the hood and the big clear plastic faceplate. They kind of stood around aimlessly when they saw that the structure they were supposed to quarantine was in fact going up in flames, was being attended to by firefighters and was surrounded by a crowd of two dozen gawking Midwesterners. Some of the space suit guys approached the firemen, and were almost certainly explaining why they couldn’t remain on the scene unless they got some of those suits of their own, since there was an unknown flesh-eating biological pathogen on site and the place was under quarantine. The firefighters were presumably pointing out that they didn’t have any of those suits on hand and they couldn’t leave because, you know, the fire still wasn’t out. Then Falconer and the two local cops joined the conversation, presumably to explain that, oh by the way, this was also a crime scene, what with the dead headless cop, arson and willful destruction of evidence.