I almost died tonight. In fact , I probably should have died tonight, I should have finally suffered the consequences of taking too many chances and chasing too many secrets.
When you stare into the Abyss the Abyss stares into you, and then it’s only a matter of time before the Abyss decides to kill your staring ass.
It all started with the Halfmoon fires. Halfmoon is a quiet, rural little town stuck between the growing cities of Clifton Park and Saratoga. Developers have been gobbling up the farms and pastures of Halfmoon for over a decade so they can make shoddily constructed apartment complexes and barely populated strip malls.
Gotta love progress huh?
Probably the chintziest of these new apartment complexes was Clifton Corners, it had been poorly designed, hastily built and managed in a way that seemed to suggest the owners outright loathed their tenants. If that wasn’t bad enough the place also bordered one of upstate New York’s cruddier cemeteries. The owner of this depressing prefab cul-de-sac, and a half-dozen others like it, was a man named Trace Buskin. What can I say about Trace Buskin? That he came up from humble beginnings to become a millionaire real estate developer? That environmental groups hate him but local politicians love him? That he has the county sheriff’s department in his back pocket?
Or how about the fact that tonight he knocked me out and tied me to a tree?
This is what happened.
I had figured out that three of the five cases of spontaneous combustion had involved residents of Clifton Corners or had happened within just a few blocks of the place. I brought my ideas to the sheriff’s department but since those ideas were wrapped up in the phrase Spontaneous Human Combustion they weren’t in the least bit interested.
A century ago death by SHC was a legitimate line of inquiry but nowadays people think they’re too rational for such things. They’ll just frown at Aunt Tilly’s smoldering remains sitting in the middle of an otherwise unharmed Barcalounger and mumble that ‘the Lord works in mysterious ways’.
Oh sure the Lord works in mysterious ways but what if the Lord had nothing to do with it? What if Aunt Tilly’s sudden and dramatic weight loss was caused by psychic volcanoes?
Or freak reactions of intestinal gasses?
Or nefarious government experiments?
Or, that old standby, angry ghosts?
With the sheriff’s department being a dead end I tried to interview some of the tenants, witnesses or friends of the victims; but only one person would talk to me and he was a crazy old coot named Leo. That’s when I fell back on my old standbys of spying and skulking around. It didn’t take me long to notice that for an absentee landlord Trace Buskin spent an awful lot of time spying and skulking around Clifton Corners.
And I guess it didn’t take Trace Buskin long to notice me noticing him. The one thing I know for sure is that I didn’t see or hear him come up behind me with a tree branch.
When I woke up I found that I had been tied to a tree with my own shoelaces. I tried to speak only to discover that he had gagged me with my own belt. I tried to break free, I tried to scream but my captor had really known what he was doing.
Right then all I had going for me was that my pants hadn’t fallen down. I watched Trace Buskin pace and rant and wonder what he was doing out here in a three piece suit.
“And you!” he pointed at me, “What are you doing following me around? I’m a respected entrepreneur!”
“Mmmph mmph! Mmmmph mmmmmph!” I replied.
“I’m doing the best I can. I’m a human being. I work long hours because I have to but do you think Gladys understood that? Men have needs.”
I shrugged sympathetically but it didn’t stop the ranting. “It was all their fault.” Trace Buskin’s voice became distant, “They made me.”
Oh great. I thought.
Trace Buskin started trembling. Veins of yellow-white phosphorescence spilled out from where he stood. The grass burned and blackened wherever they touched. They headed right for me.
At moments like this I can beg for my life with the best of them but all I could do was make more “Mmmmph!” sounds. I can also run pretty well too but I couldn’t run anywhere until I got myself loose and I didn’t see that happening anytime soon.
So, you can imagine my surprise when someone started untying me just then.
The belt was the first thing to fall away. I turned my head to see who my rescuer was.
“Leo?” I gasped.
“My name? Leo Peters, always preferred to go by Leo not Leonard. What was your name again? Brian Foster? You don’t look like a Brian. You look like a Darrin or a Karl.
“The fires? Sure I know about the fires. I told the police and the fire department every thing I knew but they didn’t want to hear it. They said I was disparaging a great man. A pillar of the community. Hah! I knew Trace Buskin when he was just a punk selling drugs on the street corner.
“Oh yeah. He was a drug dealer back in the seventies. Trust me Brian, you look far enough back into any rich man’s fortune and you’re gonna find at least one crime was at the start of it.
“What does this have to do with people catching on fire? It all started with him, it started back in May when Patty Kransky got a hundred dollar fine from the complex. It was total bullshit. Her family came to visit and she let her grandkids play Frisbee outside her apartment. So management hit her with a hundred dollar unaccompanied minors fine.
“Yeah, unaccompanied minors. It is one of the many bullcrap rules Buskin shoves down his tenants’ throats. No kids are allowed to play outside unless there is an adult right there watching them, even if you live here and they’re your own kids! Even if you’re watching them through the parlor window.
“Bad enough they nickel and dime us with all kinds of other stupid fees but what they did to Patty was just awful. She’s retired and on a very fixed income.
“And when they hit you with those fines they want the money with your next month’s rent, no negotiations allowed. I loaned her the money but I also went down to Buskin’s main office and chewed him out.
“Well, let me tell you, the high and mighty Trace Buskin doesn’t like getting called on his nonsense. He tries to feed me some cock and bull story about liability insurance but I don’t buy it. I told him, ‘No reputable apartment complex would do this.’
“Then he called me a toothless old bastard, which I am. Hee hee! Before I left his office I told him he should kill himself.
“Oh, you should have seen the look on his face.
“A few days later I get woken up out of a sound sleep by this high pitched screaming. I get out of bed, look across the complex and see flickering light in the window of Patty’s apartment.
“Me and about a dozen other people called 911. One of the guys living next to her, this big Irish kid named Dana, he kicked her door in but it was too late. She had burned up.
“It was like you said. Just Patty burned up, none of her furniture, none of her carpets, not even her damn clothes!
“Now, the cops and fire company aren’t there five minutes when Buskin shows up. He lives in Saratoga so I was thinking to myself that he got there pretty fast. I figured he was at some kind of a party because he was all dressed to the nines in a suit that probably cost as much as my rent.
“Yeah Brian, very suspicious. I can’t tell you anything else about what happened except that prick Buskin charged Dana for the damage he did kicking in the door.
“Few days later I’m up around 4 A.M. Sometimes I have trouble sleeping thanks to injuries I got back during the Tet Offensive. No. Nothing heroic, when the shooting started the damn Lt panicked and ran me over with his jeep. Broke a bunch of my bones and dragged me about twenty feet. Somehow he still ended up going home with a medal, I went home with a medical discharge.
“Where was I? Oh yeah, 4 A.M. I’m watching TV, I get up to take a piss and when I come back I see Trace Buskin wandering around the complex. Now I’m thinking to myself that maybe he’s got some kind of girlfriend living here but all the women here are middle aged or older and if a rich man’s gonna fuck around he’s gonna fuck around with a young filly. Otherwise why be rich? Huh?
“I thought about saying something but my show was coming back on so I went back to the parlor.
“That morning they found Dana burned up in his bathtub, the damn shower was still running.
“After that I tried to keep an eye out for him but when it came to every other fire I was a day late and a dollar short.
“But every one of them that died, they were friends of mine. Even the two guys that died in the car fire near the overpass? They hung out with me at the bar sometimes.
“None of it makes sense. Buskin’s a prick but he isn’t a murderer. Rich men don’t kill people for kicks. But then who’s doing this?
“You got your work cut out for ya kid.”
September 3rd (Again)
Near as I can guess Leo was following me while I was following Trace Buskin. I’ll give the old coot props, he did a much better job of not getting caught.
Now I’m not one to look a gift rescue in the mouth but while Leo fumbled with the triple knots securing my hands behind my back those trails of fire slithering along the ground towards me were getting awfully close.
Trace caught sight of the old man. I didn’t think it was possible but his expression became more crazed, “You!”
His rage was a physical thing, it washed over me as a wave of heat. It scalded my flesh and set my eyebrows smoldering. I screamed at Leo, “Hurry! For the love of God hurry!”
The knots loosened enough for me to snap the shoelaces, I got clear of the tree just as it started to burn.
“Don’t you run from me!” Trace called after us, “Don’t you dare.”
I would have loved to have been able to make a run for it but if I did that I would have had to leave a seventy year old war veteran behind to die in my place.
Even I couldn’t do that.
“How the Hell is he doing this?” Leo grabbed my arm as we backed away. “What is he?”
I said, “I don’t know. Let me think… Let me think… Maybe we can talk him down or something.”
Trace Buskin was stalking towards us, every tree he walked past went up like it had been doused in gasoline. When he spoke his voice crackled, “You think you know me? You think you know what I had to do? What I lost?”
“You think we care?” Leo spat back.
I face-palmed, so much for talking him down. More tendrils of fire bled towards us; I thought to myself that this sure as Hell wasn’t some overactive intestinal gases.
Which, I realized, might mean…
No more backing away. I stood my ground as the woods went up around me. “Trace Buskin!” I said in my loudest and most accusatory voice, “You are dead. I don’t know for how long, or what happened but you are dead.”
He laughed smokily and kept coming. Leo made a frightened noise. The iron fence of the cruddy cemetery was just a few feet behind us. We were cornered.
All I could do was keep talking, “You are dead! You must have died weeks ago. Don’t you remember?”
Trace Buskin slowed, his expression of rage becoming one of confusion. This time when he said, “I am a respected entrepreneur.” It didn’t sound like he believed it. He pointed at Leo, “He made me.”
“You. Are. Dead.”
“I’m a human-”
“What happened?” I cut him off, “Were you depressed? Did money stop buying you happiness? Was it a heart attack or did you take Leo’s advice and kill yourself?”
He looked down at himself, his expression incredible in its grief. The rivers of flame recoiled backwards, lashing themselves up and over his body. Now he burned, now veins of fire crisscrossed over him until he was nothing more than a smoldering jigsaw. That jigsaw folded and twisted in upon itself and collapsed. Then it was gone.
The woods grew darker as the fires went out. It wasn’t a gradual thing, it was like it had all been a special effect that someone had decided to turn off.
We stood there in stunned silence until we heard the sounds of sirens approaching. Leo turned to me, “What did you do?”
A full explanation would have taken too long and I was too tired. So instead I just adjusted my straw fedora and said, “I guessed.”