EXCERPT OF EVADE PART TWO:
Stewie Portier scrubbed a hand along the back of his neck and up through the thick nest of matted gray hair to his receding hairline. It was a peculiar subconscious move to clear his mind, like a cat preening in the wild.
Standing at the corner of an alley set between a large twelve-story tower hotel called The Cordant and a more modern strip mall, he scanned the restaurants, the body shop, and a new medical marijuana dispensary. He wanted to make sure there were few if any eyes on him as he entered the narrow alley.
His temples throbbed. The internal voices were arguing inside his brain, back and forth, the sound frequency increasing with every word.
They were telling him – no – insisting it was time to take down The Cordant. It was a historic building erected in the heart of the downtown district in 1902. Stewie knew the fire would be amazing, glorious as any spectacle the city had ever seen.
Currently, the owners were in several court disputes, trying to get special permission to restore it. They faced resistance from the City Historical Society. Due to a court injunction against new construction, it was rumored the owners were financially at risk of going bankrupt.
It made this the perfect opportunity to light it up. The owners, of course, would appear the most suspicious. Many would claim his fire was for the insurance payout. Thus taking any possible investigation in another direction and would keep the heat off of him.
Eventually, he might gain the police’s attention, arrested then taken back to the institution due to his so-called illnesses. In his opinion society didn’t understand him or others like him. He shared the familiar story of many patients living on the street after being institutionalized. He was without a home, without family or support, and dumped into an nameless void.
“Out of sight and out of mind,” he would often say. Yet, given his penchant for making fires, if society didn’t see him or pay attention to another beggar on the street, then it was all good for him. It was a double-edged sword.
Since his last release, Stevie lived in the alleyway two blocks from The Cordant. His daily routine involved watching security make their rounds and monitor activity around the building.
However, this morning, new voices were telling him to find the child. Find the boy who was in the back of the PPD cruiser he saw earlier when he was panhandling near the freeway. It was gnawing at him, distracting him even more than normal.
Seek him. Seek him out. HE MUST SEEK.
Willing himself to ignore the insistent voices, Stewie zipped his gray hoodie that had the word SECURITY sewn across the front. Then he slipped its hood over his dirty Eagles football cap. On his shoulder, he had a one-strap black backpack. The awkward weight strained his back.
He was confident his face was shrouded in black, but he carefully avoided looking at the security camera above his head. It was installed to protect the back of Angelos’ Deli, making sure no one broke into their back door or fiddled with the locks.
On the opposite side of the alley was a set of rusted double-doors chained together. They led to the bottom floor of The Cordant. One afternoon while pretending to look for aluminum cans in the trash bins, Stewie discovered the doors left unlocked – the padlock left hanging open. This happened once three weeks ago, but he had not been prepared to do anything about it.
Then it happened again four days ago. This time, he raced over to his grocery cart, plucked out a similar brand padlock he’d swiped from the Home Depot on 18th Ave, and replaced their lock with his. The building was his for the taking.
He knew his time was limited. There was no telling when they’d come back to check on the door, do more than a cursory pass, and discover the new lock on the chains. Once they did, they’d cut it off and replace it with one of theirs and he’d miss out. Yet, he had to have The Cordant.
The empty hotel would be his biggest fire yet and was ripe for the picking. His count so far was seventeen minor fires in Philadelphia itself and maybe twenty more serious fires in the Jenkintown area, his hometown.
The Renalt Institution, where his father committed him at age 10, was the best and biggest fire to date. It was the same institution he was violently raped repeatedly by the floor’s night shift orderly. Seeing the flames lick the sky and devour the structure of his worst years, it was… cathartic and the best therapy he ever received.
Unfortunately, he served time. He’d been careless and attracted police attention by cheering and clapping at the scene of the fire. The ashes on one sleeve gave them cause to search his Chevy where they found his gear and fire-starters.
After his original case was appealed on the basis of mental instability, he was transferred to another institution. He guessed it was his fifth at the time.
As he unlocked the chains and slipped inside the empty building, he wondered what the boy in the police cruiser had been arrested for. Did the boy like fires the way he did? Maybe he could find…seek…the boy out after tonight…
No, don’t be stupid. Why do you want to talk to the kid anyway? Ya’ ain’t one of the pervy touchers so, why do you…
I must seek him though. It has to be…
He rubbed the back of his neck again and raced his hands all through his dirty locks. This time he even added a good hard rub to his patchy goatee and scrub-beard.
Focus on the fire. Focus on whatcha doing, dumbass! Stewie heard the words almost as if his father was standing right behind him. He flinched, waiting on the hard fist to crack him in the back of his head or in the kidney.
He cautiously peeked behind him. No silvery specter shaped like his long dead father appeared. “No, of course not. Dad’s not here. Come on now.”
He slung his backpack onto the floor. Doublechecking his equipment, he opened the pack for an inspection. Inside were a couple rolls of duct tape, eight cans of lighter fluid, two cans of paint thinner, and three broom handles wrapped with cloth for torches.
Tied to his belt was a metal-handled flashlight. Switching it on, it highlighted a long foyer and cavernous meeting hall, which flowed into a wide-set of stairs leading to the next level. He jogged over to it.
Inside the hotel, he felt stronger and more determined to make the fire happen. The boy would be around to find later. A whispered ‘Seek’ echoed softly in his right ear. He whirled and shined the light on the area, but it only pinpointed clouds of dust and a long dead grandfather clock standing in one corner.
Stewie chuckled at his nerves, straightened his shoulders, and marched like a soldier to the steps, climbing to the next level.
Starter fluid was at the top of his plans. He’d soak couches and any other furniture he could find. Then he’d trail a line of it along the stairwell, finishing with a massive mixed puddle of leftover fluid and paint thinner.
Starting two separate fires at the ends of the trail was risky, but it added to the excitement and the intensity of his fires. Possible death, disfigurement or extreme pain added to the entertainment elements and would ramp up the energy at the same time satisfy his desires. Highlight his satisfaction at fooling the police too.
Nearly fifteen minutes later, he was in the top level of the old structure. A conference room close to the landing would do well for his purpose.
He retrieved two of the torch brooms and soaked them in lighter fluid. Then gathered chairs around a dilapidated, dust-covered table. Some spray paint covered paintings and torn tapestries left in another conference room were added to the pile of chairs. Many of the rooms were empty, any valuables long gone.
As he was about to give up, he located what appeared to be a penthouse suite. The rooms were scattered with old trash, but the bedchamber had a massive bay window and a door leading out to a fenced-in patio.
He tore down a trio of rose-tinted draperies and dragged them to his little bonfire.
It’s go time, he cheerfully thought.
Seek. Seek him, NOW! The voice ordered him, speaking over his left shoulder.
Stewie whirled, ready to run. No one was in the room with him. Sweat popped out along his brow at the same time a chill climbed his spine.
Ghosts? Well, so what? The building was ancient and would soon be rubble and ash.
An open canister of paint thinner in hand, he raced back to the stairs. The trail was thick, fumes mixing with the dust from the carpeted steps.
At the bottom, he was in the foyer again, but it didn’t take long to find the stairs leading into the lower two levels of the basement and hotel storage units.
The last of the paint thinner spread slowly, an almost elegant glassy pool in the middle of the cluttered, junk-strewn storage units. This was where the hotel left their unwanted or abandoned items. The old trash would feed the fire well.
Stewie’s breath grew labored as he pried open some of the fences to the units. He dragged broken desk pieces, rickety chairs, wooden headboards, and even a few coat racks closer to the paint thinner puddle. He leaned against one old desk, catching his breath, trying not to breath in too much of the fumes and thick dust.
Why is it so damn hot, he wondered. As he took off the hoodie to tie it around his waist, he caught sight of his arms. The skin was ashy, wisps of smoke wafting slowly from the pores.
Did I get some thinner or lighter fluid on me? He rubbed the hoodie along his arms trying to wipe the stuff off his skin. It didn’t have any effect.
He raked a shaky hand from the back of his neck through his matted, sweaty hair once again.
Stewie shrugged angrily and stormed the stairs. He needed to get this done so he could track down that boy. This was taking too long.
Maybe I should do this tomorrow? Surely, they wouldn’t notice the padlock one more day.
Smelling the fumes in the air, it brought back some of his zeal to bring the old lady down to her cinders. His manic toothless smile grew again.
When he reached the fourteenth-floor landing, he dug in his faded jeans’ pocket for one of the many lighters he carried at all times.
The bonfire pile ignited like fall leaves. Stewie hesitated, gripped with an overwhelming desire to watch the flames reach out, slide across the floor tiles, climb the walls, and devour the chairs, to witness it come to life before his eyes. But it wouldn’t be safe to stay long. The fire already flared along the hall’s trail of paint thinner on the stairs.
He was mesmerized by the amber beauty. It was a living, dancing gemstone that performed for him like a lover he hadn’t touched in years.
If you stay, you’ll never find the boy. Seek him! SEEK HIM!
The words broke his trance and he blanched at the sight of the pyre before him. Most of the room was engulfed, including the ceiling tiles above his head. Small chunks and burning embers were raining down around him.
He ran and dove over the reaching flames blocking the doorway. The skin on his left arm was singed and welted with second-degree burns. Tumbling and rolling in the hall put out the parts of his shirt that were on fire.
On his knees, Stewie was scared, witnessing how fast the old wood walls and framework were consumed by the fire. Although dazzled and charmed by the sight of the flames, it was not his wish to burn to death. He wanted to create more fires and it galled him that he may have robbed himself of the chance.
And he craved to learn more about the boy!
The words, Seek the boy, came out of his mouth unconsciously and repeated over and over in a monotone loop.
In a frenzied descent of the stairs, he made for the hotel’s back door. Rather than seeing, he psychically sensed it and experienced a surge of raw energy. It rushed through him and raced along every nerve in his body as though struck by lightning. His feet tangled, making him stumble down the steps, again catching fire in the paint thinner trail. At the next floor landing, he writhed on his back for several agonizing seconds, striving to put out the flames.
The pain from the burns along his arm, neck, face, and right shoulder subsided some. Yet, the rushing raw sensation of energy that hit him remained like the dull ache of a broken bone.
The image of the brown-haired boy from the police cruiser, hovering in air surrounded by rings manifested in his mind’s eye. A faint glowing cloud of red light surrounded him. At the same time, the calling command inside increased in its power.
Something had happened. Something which involved the child and the red rings. Instinctively, Stevie knew it was a new form of fire he never experienced before, but he wanted to have more. It literally reignited his race out of the building and spurred his mind to action.
Finally, at the bottom level and the expansive foyer, he flew across the floor toward the double doors. The bottom levels spewed black smoke from their stairwell and heated air baked his skin red, stretching it tight.
Stewie lunged at the door handle and sprawled headlong into the alley. Somewhere inside, he was dimly aware he neglected to put his hoodie back on and exposed his face to the security camera’s recording.
But it didn’t matter now.
Seek him! Seek him! Seek him! Seek him!
Like the fire that devoured The Cordant, his brain was ablaze and consumed with a new fire.