He has gathered up the discarded things, their leavings, rave posters, and take-out bags, and the ragged blankets of the lost children. He has carried them here from the far reaches of the house and piled them in the center of this room.
Outside, cool liquid air has descended and touched the earth and all that is on it, in this place, with its soft, wet soul. The transparent cloud condenses on the remaining windowpanes and glitters in the reach of the streetlights, seeps into the moss, which has grown to cover the window ledge beneath the roof where the eave has sunk and the gutter is rotted away.
The neighborhood is deeply quiet. Below, on the flat by the river, city towers blink as cleaning crews move from office to office. The nightlife, half-hearted at midweek even during peak hours, is completely stilled. It is the insomniac and suicide hour.
He is not a smoker, but he always keeps the lighter with him. It is an old-fashioned lighter, a refillable one, a sort of family heirloom. He is anxious, eager for the flames. It has been a long time. He strikes the lighter and yellow flame hums. He holds the flame to a frayed blanket edge. The threads shrink away, curl, disappear.
“Come, come,” he coaxes. “Come little flame.” And the flame catches and runs along a tear in the blanket, grabs hold of a crumpled poster and leaps up.
He backs away, slowly, pauses in the doorway to watch the flames rise and dance. And raises his arms into the air, runs his fingers through the smoke, runs ahead of the flame, pied piper of dragons, he runs into the night.
Ed Holliday smelled the smoke before he saw the glow from the third story window of the old Bartlett house. His first thought was good riddance; maybe the street kids would stay away from the neighborhood without the old place to crash in. His second thought was, what if one of those poor kids was in there sleeping? He was dialing 911 on his cell phone and almost ran the stop sign on King. He had to slam on his brakes to avoid hitting the VW hippie van crossing in front of him. It surprised him. The van was the only vehicle he had encountered since leaving the freeway.
“I want to report a fire.”
“Where are you located, sir?”
“Between King and Twenty-fourth. It’s the old Bartlett place.”
“Is that Southwest King?”
“Yes. Look there could be somebody in there.”
“Yes, sir. We’ve notified the fire department.” The operator instructed him to go home and not impede the emergency vehicles. Ed was home already, pulling into his drive, and he could hear the blast of the fire engine horns as they crossed the first intersection. The station was only five blocks away. Too close to bother with sirens, especially at this hour. But the police had made no such concession to the neighborhood. Ed heard the police siren begin from some far street and build toward him. He stood beside his car and watched the fire trucks arrive. Flames had eaten through the roof of the house and, vitalized with this abundant source of oxygen, flowed along the roofline.
The iron gates were locked. Though the lock had never proven sufficient against homeless kids, it held back the fire trucks for a few precious seconds. Two firemen broke the lock with a crowbar and the first truck pulled into the drive and up to the house, over decades of fallen branches and ankle-deep leaves.
Ed flinched at the sound of shattering glass. He thought about running to help, until he realized that it was just windows bursting from the heat, instead of some kid trying to fight his way out. And the windows kept breaking and the glass kept falling, glinting in the red swirling lights like frozen rain.
A police cruiser arrived and parked diagonally in the street. Its blue lights swiped the neighborhood houses. The police officer got out and aimed her brilliant flashlight at Ed’s face.
“Are you the man who reported the fire?” She asked.
“Yes,” Ed motioned toward his house. “I live here.”
“Out kind of late aren’t you?” She lowered the flashlight and approached him.
“I just got back from Boston on the redeye.” Why is it, Ed thought, that an encounter with the police always makes me feel like I’m lying? “I prefer flying at night.”
She retrieved a notebook and pen from a jacket pocket.
“What’s your name?”
“Could you spell that, please?” She looked up from her notebook and smiled as if to take the edge off her routine questions.
He spelled it for her.
“I’m Officer Trudeaux. Let’s talk about the fire.” She turned so that she was standing beside him, watching the fire with him. “It’s quite a sight isn’t it?” Almost conspiratorially or as if she were admiring the work of an artist.
Ed nodded. The stone walls of the house were holding, but the roof seemed to be gone and flames were licking through the windows at the stone, reaching out greedy tongues to the tangle of morning glory vines that had spread over the original ivy and climbed up the walls. And the fire breathed, roaring and sucking.
“Did you see anything in the area? Anyone that shouldn’t be here? A car?”
“Only the hippie van.”
“Tell me about it.” She was poised to write again. “Color, license plate. Did you see the driver? Where did you see the van?”
“It was a Volkswagon van. An early sixties model. A real throwback, all painted up with designs. It looked like someone’s doodle pad.” Ed shook his head. “It was bad enough the first time around, but this whole retro-hippie thing is a bit much now, don’t you think?”
Officer Trudeaux nodded. “So where did you say you saw the van?”
“Back there at fifteenth. It was coming from the left. I was calling 911 and I almost ran the stop sign there. I would have hit it. I wasn’t expecting anyone.”
“About the driver?”
“I didn’t see him.”
“Him? It was a man?”
Ed thought for a moment. What had made him say one way or the other? “Well, I don’t really know. Guess that’s just a manner of speaking, you know. It could have been a woman.”
With the roar of the fire and the constant drone of the fire engines, neither Officer Trudeaux nor Ed Holliday heard the man approaching. He just seemed to materialize beside them.
“Jesus. It’s the Bartlett place.”
They both jumped. Trudeaux’s hand moved reflexively toward her side arm.
“Sir, step into the street, please.”
The new arrival did as he was told. He faced them solemnly, his hands away from his body, waiting for the officer to speak.
“Are you a neighbor? What’s your business here?”
“I couldn’t sleep. I was just taking a walk,” the man said. He wasn’t a great deal taller than Officer Trudeaux, but he was broad-shouldered, which made him seem much larger than the policewoman.
“What’s your name and where do you live?” She asked.
“I’m Malcolm Crage. I’m the developer. Urban Visions? Maybe you’ve heard of it?” The tone was brittle.
If you lived in Portland, you had to be comatose not to have heard of Urban Visions, Ed thought. So this was Malcolm Crage, or Connie Crage, as everybody, including the media, called him.
Ed turned his attention back to the fire. The firefighters now had control of it. It was dying as he watched, more smoke than flame. He noticed, for the first time, the floodlights that had been set up to shine on the building. They illuminated the stone tower, which appeared to have sustained little damage. Even it’s peaked roof seemed mostly intact. A firefighter was opening a window, which had survived the blaze. He was shouting something into the night.
Someone on the ground yelled back to him, “Use your radio.”
And less than a minute later, a fireman was hurrying toward Ed’s driveway.
“Officer,” The fireman stopped in the middle of the street, removing his helmet, “we’ve got a body.”