This story was one of ten selected by the readers and editors of Creative Loafing for their 2010 Fiction Contest.
Like most everyone else in Florida, Twilight Janus Dawson had come to the Sunshine State for the conveniences but stayed for the complications. These days, T.J., as he would have been known to his friends if he’d had any, just told folks he liked the warm weather. In fact, he found the warmer temperatures preferable to the cold New York City winter nights he worked as a beat cop.
Today, though, was hot as hell. In a room with a bare light bulb humming. Handcuffed around a chair bolted to the floor. The windows covered with heavy dark cloth and duct tape, no air circulating. Him and six guys in a room that comfortably held four.
The blue-orange flame of the acetylene torch popping to life, three feet from his face.
Yeah, this was a hot day, and a damn hard way to go.
# # # #
T.J. understood police work, understood everything about it. He had been a police officer his entire working life, as had his father. As had his uncles, his now-dead brother. Policing was less a career choice and more simply a part of who he was, grafted into his DNA.
But it wasn’t policing that wrenched him from a promising career with the NYPD and into the small-town Gulfport Police Department.
It was a woman. And when it came to women, he understood nothing at all.
He loved her, or thought he did. She loved him, or he thought she did. And when she took the job with the law firm in Tampa, it made all the sense in the world to pack up his small Brooklyn apartment and follow her down. A guy with a bit more understanding might have seen the desperate, pleading look in her eyes when she broke the news about the job, her hands on his broad chest, pushing him away, really. The turn of her cheek as he kissed her, the watery tears in her eyes begging him to stay in New York, or to at least not go. Not go with her.
They lasted about three months before she said she needed her space. He left her with the new condo in Channelside, and he slept at the station for two weeks before crash-landing in the old Florida apartment off Boca Ciega Bay.
Six weeks later, her body would turn up near the net of a fisherman casting around in a back channel off Weedon Island.
# # # #
Dawson figured he was looking at three scenarios, none of them optimal.
Six guys in the room, three by the door. Two of them had silver pistols stuffed in the front of their pants, handles out. Probably nine millimeters, maybe .45s. He could see the sheath for a knife peeking below the third guy’s leather jacket. They were big and quiet, tattooed arms crossed, dead eyes hidden behind shimmering, mirrored sunglasses, filthy beards barely hiding rotten-tooth sneers.
A fourth guy was leaning in to Dawson. He smelled like cigarettes and something chemical Dawson couldn’t place. All he had on was a leather vest, no shirt, dirty jeans and heavy, black boots. He had what Dawson figured to be a .45 strapped around his hairy barrel chest in a holster.
The fifth guy was leaning in with the acetylene torch, fiddling with the knobs.
“Fuckin’ thing,” he whispered, “left or fuckin’ right to amp up the goddam flame?”
He didn’t know how to use it. The fourth guy just shrugged at him. Apparently none of them did. Dawson took silent note. The torch didn’t belong to them.
This changed things. Or confirmed things.
She’d washed up in the Weedon Island back-channel, burns over most of her body, unrecognizable. The coroner had never seen anything like it.
But the fifth guy was still fumbling his meaty paw around the handle of the torch, fairly worn green and red tubes coming down, twisting the knobs this way as the flame danced liquid orange, then a tight, hissing blue, then back to orange tongues dancing.
Then hot, high blue, the flame like a cat’s eye. Like a knife.
Dawson took note of the sixth guy, leaning against the far corner, arms crossed, mirror sunglasses reflecting the blue flame dancing in the meaty hand of his friend, his beard in a braid, the rest of face, unreadable.
That guy, guy number six, was the one with Dawson’s custom .44 stuck in his belt.
All his life, T.J. Dawson had been big. Big for his age in elementary school, big for his age in high school. He’d have excelled at a career in high school and collegiate athletics if he’d cared at all about being around people.
By the time he was nineteen he was just four inches shy of seven feet tall, and more than two-hundred pounds, all of it muscle. As a cop, the standard issue .9 millimeter pistol just didn’t work. His thick fingers scraped through the trigger guards. He got special dispensation from the NYPD to carry a custom-built .44.
He figured if they were going to build him a gun, he ought to get good at using it. And he did.
The fifth guy was debating where to go to work on him. It was looking like the face, which was fine with Dawson. He wanted the guy’s hand up with the handle of the torch. Now it was just a matter of deciding on which scenario.
First, he could burn the fourth guy as widely as possible – just set him aflame and let him run.
Take out guy number five, just because he would be closest, probably take at least one bullet, maybe a knife if the one by the door was any good with the blade.
The second scenario would be to just temporarily block the torch – knock it away – then go for the .45 belonging to the guy crowding his personal space. It’d be easy to grab, but it would have to be a spot-on grab. No mistakes. Probably still have to take a bullet, and it was guaranteed he’d have to either mash his index finger through the trigger guard, or fire with his ring finger.
He’d done it before. It was ugly, and it wasn’t very accurate, but it got the bullet out of the gun.
The third scenario involved keeping the torch. Just grabbing it and using it as the primary weapon, at least until he could get to the .44. It would involve cooking the fifth guy, but that was probably going to happen, anyway.
In no scenario did he imagine getting burned in any way.
His older brother had always been fascinated with magic. Well, not so much magic as figuring out how the tricks were done. On a summer afternoon, he had sat with T.J. and shown him how to take a thin wire, maybe it was a paperclip, and straighten it out, then insert it into the seam of your shirt cuff. So hot in the summer, T.J. had said. Don’t want to have my sleeves rolled down.
Okay, his brother had told him. Maybe put it in your watch band. His brother had a special ring he’d bought at the thrift store. It had a small compartment to hid tiny treasures. T.J. watched as his brother put the small spool of wire in the ring.
Hands behind your back has one advantage: no one can see what you’re doing. T.J.’s brother showed him. Work that little piece of wire out, pick that lock.
The two spent the summer picking locks with pieces of wire, then practicing it behind their backs.
As a cop, he’d always kept a string of wire in the seam of the Velcro band of his Timex. It was a terrible digital watch, which is why the clowns in the room didn’t think to take it. Had it been a Bulova or a Rolex, it’d be off his wrist in no time. A bullshit Timex? Let him die with it on.
The temperature in the room was already rising, and he could feel the sweat bead off his forehead and cheeks. The air in the room felt stale and old and heavy.
Guy number five had made up his mind, had scrounged the balls, finally, and was making the move. Dawson was out of time.
Fuck it, option three.
His right hand came around and snatched the handle of the torch straight out of the guy’s hand.
Dawson knew he’d only have about three seconds of surprise factor seconds before someone drew a gun or threw a knife.
Dawson pulled his right hand back quick and hard. He drew the sharp blue flame across the fifth guy’s face. Fifth guy screamed immediately as his beard and hair singed, smoldered, and caught fire. Dawson brought his arm back left and let the flame touch his shirt at his belly.
Dawson moved up quickly, noting the guys by the door were already starting to move – more like two seconds, damn – and slammed his shoulder into the fifth guy’s chest, sending him stumbling back towards the guy with his custom .44.
The fourth guy, the one who had been standing close to Dawson, was making the worst possible move for himself. He was going to try and punch Dawson, drawing back a fist. Big mistake.
Dawson thumbed the right valve, hoping it was oxygen to increase the size of the flame.
He wasn’t disappointed.
The flame met the guy’s face, melted his sunglasses and set his hair alight all before the guy could throw his punch. Dawson thought he heard the guy’s eyeball pop. Fourth guy opened his mouth to scream, but nothing came out.
With his left hand, Dawson grabbed the guy and pulled him close, turning him a sharp quarter turn and waiting for the report.
Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam!
Nine millimeters. The guy with the melting face in front of him took four of the hits. He could feel the impact of the bullets in the guy’s torso, his left arm grabbing the back of his jacket, bracing him upward. The body instantly heavy, smoke billowing from the now lifeless head.
He felt the fifth bullet zip into the upper part of his shoulder.
Dawson held the torch to the body for a beat, ensuring it would burn, and shoved the dead man as hard as he could in the general direction of the guys by the door, causing them to jump back, if only for a moment. The smoking, flaming corpse landing just where he wanted him to.
The first guy he torched was still dancing around, screaming. Shirt now fully aflame, leather vest half-off, which only pinned his arms down at the elbows, making his dramatic motions look like a macabre dance of hot, painful suffering.
He was reaching to his friend – the one with Dawson’s .44 – reaching to him for help, for mercy.
But the guy with Dawson’s custom gun was having none of it.
“Get the fuck away, goddamit,” the thug with his .44 spat at his smoldering friend. Dawson thought that was some cold shit, even for a biker motherfucker.
On his knees, now, pushed down by the guy against the wall, clawing at his face and hair, which occasionally sparked yellow. He was making a gurgling noise. He might live, but it wouldn’t be pretty.
Dawson flung the handle of the torch as hard as he could to the three against the wall, two with guns in their hands, one with a Bowie knife.
Pop! The trigger opened and cut off the oxygen as the handle flew through the air. It was loud, as loud as the blast of a gun, and Dawson got what he needed: all three men by the door jumped back, banging into the wall and the door.
Dawson was half a second behind the torch handle, flying for the door head-first. In another second and a half, he’d be ramming his right forearm across the neck of the guy with the Bowie knife, his left hand wrenching the heavy knife out of the guy’s hand and crashing through the door, the frame, and a good chunk of the wall.
His timing couldn’t have been better.
The guy he’d thrown at the door – the one who took the bullets – had continued to burn around his head and torso, the orange licks of flame consuming him. Dawson had figured – correctly – that it would only take a few seconds for the heat from the guy on fire to melt the torch tubes leading to the handle.
He was right. There was a hot hiss and an accelerating whine as the smallest hole melted the tube with the acetylene gas.
And then chaos. The tubes, spewing red-orange fire, flew around the room like a crazed hydra.
The whine had blossomed to a wet roar, and Dawson knew he’d have to get out, soon. Pulling himself off the guy with the knife, who was out cold, he found himself halfway out in the hallway. One of the guys with a gun had taken a shot of burning gas to the face, and was on his knees, screaming.
The guy with his custom .44 had it out in his hands and was running for the door, his hair on fire.
The deadly flame-hose whipped the guy with the .44, and he screamed as highly pressurized, superheated flames licked his face. He dropped the gun and it slid towards Dawson, who crouched to grab for it.
“Fuck you, asshole,” the other guy with the nine millimeter had the drop on him, gun barrel just
inches from the back of his head. He’d managed to avoid the hose, already starting to fizzle out, though the room was now nearly engulfed in flame.
“You’re done, pig,” the guy growled.
Dawson, eyes looking up, locked with the greasy biker, knew he’d have to time everything just right, again.
“Why’d he do it?” he said, not blinking.
The goon just stood there, looking down, deciding whether to answer Dawson or shoot him in the head.
What the hell, right? What could it hurt, just tell the guy.
“She was on to it. Money from the bosses in Mexico, Colombia, Peru. I don’t fuckin’ know how they did it. I look like I work at that fuckin’ law firm? Money comes in. They flip properties. Money goes out. It’s clean. She added it the fuck up, and that sick fucker torched her.,” the biker moved the barrel forward two inches. “Shoulda just popped her. Like I’m gonna pop you.”
Dawson was aware of everything in that moment. The hose, finally fizzling out, the orange flames climbing the walls, roaring in the background. The heat – the incredible, unbearable heat pushing him, wrapping around him like a blanket he couldn’t escape. He felt it in his breath, in his sweat-drenched pores.
The only place he didn’t feel it was his heart, still dead cold. From her. It would take more than a torch and five guys cooking in a room to warm it back up.
He glanced long at the hose which offered one last hiss and spout of flame. It was enough.
The biker followed his sideways glance into the inferno of a room and the remnants of his partners, the torch, the chair.
Dawson swung the knife up fast but smooth and easy, carrying the motion through. The blade went completely through the guy’s wrist, severing nerves, arteries, and most important, tendons.
His fingers sprung open off the gun and it clattered to the floor.
With a reflex, the guy pulled his arm up, grasping this left forearm with his right hand above where the blade entered, screaming. As his brain worked to process the knife in his arm, Dawson scooped up the big .44, and in one motion, brought himself to a knee, and leveled the barrel at the thug’s chest.
Fifteen seconds later, he was out in the front yard of the house in a neighborhood he didn’t know.
Smoke billowed from the back as the room cooked the six guys, one with three fresh holes the size of grapefruits in his chest.
# # # #
“You smell like smoke.” The guy was in an awfully compromising position to be commenting on appearances. On his knees, the floor of his office. Hands quivering behind his head. Dawson’s custom .44 two inches from the back of his skull.
“Just came from your friend’s place.” Dawson was steady. The shoulder wound was a little more than a scrape, but not much. Hurt like hell, but wasn’t going to stop him. After the house, nothing was going to stop him. The drive to the law firm in downtown Tampa. The security guards at the front who just watched Twilight Janus Dawson, his uniform filthy, bloody, reeking of smoke and seared flesh. They’d have just watched him, anyway. Guys like Dawson don’t stop for much.
“Yeah? How’s the gang?” Dawson had to give him credit: for a guy on his knees with a loaded .44 at his head, he was cool.
This stopped the guy for a minute.
“So. What do you want. You want to know why I did it. Why her?”
Dawson had a choice. He could tell this guy, the guy that had taken a torch to her for God knew how long before she died, that he more than wanted her back. He wanted her to love him again, the way she had before. Bring her back to him. Bring back her love. Bring back what they had shared. Bring back that heat they when they first met, when he took her to dinner. Bring back that night, when they ended up at his place, rolling naked in the bedroom, sweating, kissing, clawing, squeezing each other with an animal hot passion he’d too rarely known.
Tell the guy he loved her. Or a bullet.