Slow Burn

By J.E. Seymour


J.E. Seymour lives in a small town in New Hampshire and has had a number of short crime stories published. See


“Sometimes you have to sit and wait for it to happen, you know?”

Ted nodded. He understood waiting. He’d been waiting a long time for this meeting.

“It’s like, you know, they tell people not to smoke in bed ‘cause they’ll burn the house down, and nobody tells you how hard it is to really burn a place down. Unless you use something.”

“An accelerant.”

“Right. But you use that, the fire department knows it’s arson. You know? But if they can’t find an accelerator, accelerant? They won’t even look twice. That’s why I do it the way I do, usually. Except it’s slow.”

“And how do you do it?”

The heavy-set man in the passenger seat, J.J., showed a half a mouthful of yellow teeth.

“That’s a trade secret.”

Ted nodded again. “But it’s slow, whatever you do.”

“Right. And sometimes it doesn’t work. Somebody will spot the smoke, use a fire extinguisher.” He shrugged his broad shoulders, his Hawaiian shirt erupting in a jumble of color. He seemed to have the ability to withstand the cold without a coat. Maybe it was all his layers of fat. Like a walrus. “That’s why I try to do it when the place is empty.”

Ted shivered slightly. “And you’re not a murderer, are you?”

“Right, that too.” Once more with the toothy grin. Accompanied by breath so foul it could have started a fire by itself. J.J. must have been eating raw onions, possibly accompanied by garlic and some sort of cheese. “Wouldn’t want to be responsible for innocent deaths.”

“No, I’m sure you wouldn’t.” Ted turned away at that, staring out the window of the car at the abandoned building that served as J.J.’s latest achievement. “So how much longer do we need to sit here?” He focused on his own reflection, the pale face, the ski-jump nose. Bob Hope without the smile. It had been a while since he’d had a reason to smile.

“I like to wait until I’m sure it’s going down.”

“You ever get caught?”

“Hell no. Even if they saw me at the scene, I’m just one more firewatcher. They can’t pin anything on me.”

“You wear gloves?”

“Absolutely.” He fished out a pair of purple surgical gloves and waved them in Ted’s face. “And hey, we’re talking crimes against property here. I ain’t never hurt nobody.”

“You’re sure?”

The big guy shook his head. “No way. Like I said, I only work on empty places, or places that are about to be empty, you know.”

“So how many of these have you done?”

“I don’t know, hundreds maybe.” J.J. narrowed his empty dark eyes for a moment. “You ask a lot of questions. You’re not a cop, right?”

Ted almost laughed at that. There was no way anybody would mistake his frail body for a cop. He could have been the before picture in the old Charles Atlas ads. “No, I’m not a cop. I work for the same guy you do. You know, Louie. I’m an accountant.”

“An accountant?”

“Yeah. I work with numbers.”

“Oh, I get it, that’s funny.” Gap-toothed grin again. “You’re a bookie.”

“No, I told you, I’m an accountant. I keep the books.” All nice and legal. Ted had never broken a law in his whole life. Louie might have somebody else keeping a second set of books, might dabble in things that weren’t legal, but all Ted ever saw was the legal stuff.

J.J. changed the subject. “It looks like it’s going to burn. We can split.”

Ted started the car. The big man was staring out the window, watching the smoke slither out around the door, licking his lips.

J.J. turned as they drove off. “So anyway, Louie didn’t tell me why you wanted to come.”

“I wanted to see how it was done, learn more about it, more about you.”


“I know somebody who died in a fire.”

“Not one of mine.”

“This person wasn’t supposed to be in the building.”

“What, like a squatter? Somebody homeless? I ain’t never burned out a squatter on purpose. I’m selective, man, I don’t want to go to some prison for murder, you know?” The man rubbed his chin, frowning. “Like I said, I never hurt nobody."

“Not even a firefighter?”

J.J. sucked in his breath.

“A firefighter who might have gone in looking for people who were supposed to be in there, but weren’t. You know what I mean?” He could hear the anger in his voice. He needed to tone that down. He didn’t want to scare the big guy.

“I wouldn’t know about that.”

“Yeah, I’m sure you wouldn’t.”

“I told you, I’m careful.”

Ted nodded. “Just the same, careful as you are, did you maybe do a job down by the water a couple of years ago? A big abandoned warehouse where bums, squatters, homeless people used to hang out?” He looked at the younger man for a second, then back at the road. “It was your MO. No accelerant used, no prints. Nobody can pin it on you, but it was your style.” He was heading south out of the city now, on the highway, leaning on the accelerator.

“Where are we going?”

A note of fear in that voice? “Did you do that job?”

“Maybe. Did some firefighter get cooked?”

“A kid, very new on the job, volunteered to be part of a team going into the building to look for the homeless people who should have been in there. He somehow got separated from his partner. He died in that building. 21 years old, his whole life ahead of him, and he dies looking for people who weren’t even in the building.” Ted had to pause for breath. “Once they discovered that no accelerant was used, they decided it wasn’t arson, didn’t talk to the homeless guys.”

“But somebody did?”

“I did.” Going from one bum to the next, trying to find out what had happened, find out who had committed this crime.


“My son.”

“The firefighter?”


The big guy fell silent, staring out the window, watching the landscape change from suburban to rural.

Ted didn’t speak either. He wanted to let the man think. Think about what that kid looked like. No open casket at that funeral. Think about what it means to lose a son. And by default, a wife as well.

Ted knew all the statistics. The therapist had quoted them at him. 50% of all marriages end in divorce. Many break up after the death of a child. He wasn’t surprised in the end, when his wife walked away, leaving him alone.

“So where we going?”

“The beach.”

The big head swiveled around. “At night? In the middle of the winter?”

“We’re going to have a cookout.”

“Just you and me?”


They drove on smaller and smaller roads, the last one so narrow that it didn’t even have a stripe down the middle. This road had crushed seashells embedded in the asphalt. He could smell the salt air even with the windows closed. There was no snow. It was a mild winter anyway, but the wind off the water in this area kept the area fairly free of snow in any winter.

It was all familiar. This was where they had always come, his little family, where they’d had their picnics and where they’d gone swimming.

Pleasant memories welled up in his brain, almost bringing tears to his eyes. His son had always wanted to help people, inspired by the lifeguard they’d watched here save someone from a riptide.

He’d driven down here earlier today, prepared the pile of driftwood for the fire. He’d soak it with gasoline tonight. He had no aversions to using an accelerant. He glanced at the big man in the passenger seat. He was sweating, despite the short sleeved shirt. Little beads of sweat standing out on his upper lip, on his forehead, dark patches under his arms.

“So what are we cooking?”

“You don’t want to know.”

“You know I’m a lot bigger than you are.”

“I know that.” Ted considered the huge handgun in his jacket pocket a way to even the odds. The big man was silent for a moment. “You won’t get away with it.”

“Sure I will. Nobody comes out here this time of year. Especially not in the middle of the night. Even if they do, once I’m gone, they won’t suspect me of anything.” He paused and looked at the big guy again. “Nobody will miss you. You don’t look like the socially active type.”

“Look, I’m sorry about your son, okay? I’m not a killer.” J.J. paused. “You don’t look like a killer either.”

“You’d be surprised.” He pulled into the parking lot and shut off the car. Then he took out the large handgun and aimed it casually at the big guy. This was the first time he had ever done that, despite a stint in the army. He’d been an accountant then too, had never actually had to shoot at anyone, but his training had included weapons. He knew what a gun was, knew how to handle one. This particular weapon came from another associate of Louie, with a promise that it was untraceable.

They got out of the car, the big man starting to look like he was going into shock. Ted directed J.J. towards an opening in the dunes. As they passed through the gap and struggled across the sand, the roar of the waves came at them. It was cold. Ted paused and pulled his jacket tighter around himself.

J.J. took off. Ted had anticipated that. He had practiced with the gun, knew how to use it. He raised the semiauto, steadied it with both hands and fired at the man, and was actually surprised to hit him. His training must have stayed with him. J.J. fell and Ted walked over to him. The big man was still alive, curled into a tight ball.

“Get up.”

J.J. muttered an obscenity.

Ted kicked him. J.J. began to crawl. Ted kicked again, directing him towards the firewood. He reached down and helped, half dragging him. J.J. was whimpering.

“Not so tough, are you?” Ted was running on anger now.

“You can’t do this.”

“I’ve already done it.” Ted shot the man again, shoved him onto the pile. Walked to the car and grabbed the gas can out of the trunk. Doused the pyre, then pulled out his matches and some paper. Struck a match, which went out before he could light the paper. It took four tries to get it started. Then he crouched down in the sand. Sometimes you have to sit and wait for it to happen, you know?

J.E. Seymour ©2005


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