THIS TIME I know it, I know it with a certainty that chokes my throat with panic, that grips and twists my heart until it’s ripped from its mooring. This time, I’m too late.
This time, it’s too hot. This time, it’s too bright, there’s too much smoke.
The house alarm is screaming out, not the early-warning beep but the piercing you’re-totally-screwed-if-you-don’tmove-now squeal. I don’t know how long it’s been going off, but it’s too late for me now. The searing oven-blast heat within the four corners of my bedroom. The putrid black smoke that singes my nostril hairs and pollutes my lungs. The orange flames rippling across the ceiling above me, dancing around my bed, almost in rhythm, a taunting staccato, popping and crackling, like it’s not a fire but a collection of flames working together; collectively, they want me to know, as they bob up and down and spit and cackle, as they slowly advance, This time it’s too late, Emmy —
The window. Still a chance to jump off the bed to the left and run for the window, the only part of the bedroom still available. The enemy is cornering me, daring me, Go ahead, Emmy, go for the window, Emmy —
This is my last chance, and I know, but don’t want to think about, what happens if I fail—that I have to start preparing myself for the pain. It will just hurt for a few minutes, it will be teeth-gnashing, gut-twisting agony, but then the heat will shrivel off my nerve endings and I’ll feel nothing, or better yet I’ll pass out from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Nothing to lose. No time to waste.
The flames hit my flannel comforter as my legs kick over to the floor, as I bounce up off the mattress and race the one-two-three-four steps to the window. A girlish, panicky squeal escapes my throat, like when Daddy and I used to play chase in the backyard and he was closing in. I lower my shoulder and lunge against the window, a window that was specifically built to not shatter, and ringing out over the alarm’s squeal and the lapping of the flames is a hideous roar, a hungry growl, as I bounce off the window and fall backward into the raging heat. I tell myself, Breathe, Emmy, suck in the toxic pollution, don’t let the flames kill you, BREATHE—
Breathe. Take a breath.
“Damn,” I say to nobody in my dark, fire-free room. My eyes sting from sweat and I wipe them with my T-shirt. I know better than to move right away; I remain still until my pulse returns to human levels, until my breathing evens out.
I look over at the clock radio, where red fluorescent square numbers tell me it’s half past two.
Dreams suck. You think you’ve conquered something, you work on it over and over and tell yourself you’re getting better, you will yourself to get better, you congratulate yourself on getting better. And then you close your eyes at night, you drift off into another world, and suddenly your own brain is tapping you on the shoulder and saying, Guess what? You’re NOT better!
I let out one, conclusive exhale and reach for my bedroom light. When I turn it on, the fire is everywhere. It’s my wallpaper now, the various photographs and case summaries and inspectors’ reports adorning the walls of my bedroom, fires involving deaths in cities throughout the United States: Hawthorne, Florida. Skokie, Illinois. Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Plano, Texas. Piedmont, California.
And, of course, Peoria, Arizona.
Fifty-three of them in all.
I move along the wall and quickly review each one. Then I head to my computer and start opening e-mails.
Fifty-three that I know of. There are undoubtedly more.
This guy isn’t going to stop.
I’M HERE for the Dick. That’s not what I actually say, but that’s what I mean.
“Emmy Dockery for Mr. Dickinson, please.”
The woman parked at a wedge of a desk outside Dickinson’s office is someone I’ve never met. Her nameplate says LYDIA and she looks like a Lydia: cropped brown hair and black horn-rimmed glasses and a prim silk blouse. She probably writes sonnets in her spare time. She probably has three cats and likes Indian food, only she would call it cuisine.
I shouldn’t be so catty, but it annoys me that there’s someone new, that something has changed since I left, so I feel like a stranger in an office where I faithfully labored for almost nine years.
“Did you have an appointment with the director, Ms. . . . Dockery?”
Lydia looks up at me with a satisfied smirk. She knows I don’t have an appointment. She knows because they called up from the lobby to see if I was authorized to enter. She’s just reminding me that I’ve only gotten this far as some kind of courtesy.
“The director?” I ask with faux confusion. “You mean the executive assistant director for the Criminal, Cyber, Response, and Services Branch?”
Okay, I can be a bitch. But she started it.
I wait Lydia out, because I wouldn’t be standing here if the Dick hadn’t agreed to see me.
He makes me wait, which is so like him, but twenty minutes later I’m in the office of the Dick. Dark wood walls and trophy photographs on the walls, diplomas, ego stuff. The Dick has a tremendous and entirely undeserved opinion of himself.
Julius Dickinson, he of the ever-present tan and comb-over, the extra ten pounds, the smarmy smile, gestures to a seat for me. “Emmy,” he says, thick with false pity in his voice but his eyes bright. Already, he’s trying to get a rise out of me.
“You haven’t returned any of my e-mails,” I say, taking a seat.
“That’s right, I haven’t,” he says, making no attempt to justify the stiff-arm he’s given me. He doesn’t have to. He’s the boss. I’m just an employee. Hell, I’m not even that at the moment; I’m an employee on unpaid leave whose career is hanging by a string, whose career could be destroyed by the man sitting across from me.
“Have you at least read them?” I ask.
Dickinson removes a silk cloth from his drawer and cleans his eyeglasses. “I got far enough to see that you’re talking about a series of fires,” he says. “Fires that you think are the work of a criminal genius who has managed to make them appear unrelated.”
“What I did read in its entirety,” he adds with a sour note, “was a recent article from the Peoria Times, the local newspaper in a small Arizona town.” He lifts up a printout of the article and reads from it. “‘Eight months after her sister’s death in a house fire, Emmy Dockery is still on a crusade to convince the Peoria Police Department that Marta Dockery’s death was not an accident, but murder.’ Oh, and this part: ‘Doctor Martin Lazerby, a deputy medical examiner with the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office, insists that all forensic evidence points to death by an accidental fire.’ And this is my favorite, a quote from their police chief: ‘She works for the FBI,’ he said. ‘If she’s so sure it’s murder, why doesn’t she get her own agency to investigate it?’”
I don’t respond. The article was crap; they took the police’s side and didn’t even give a fair airing of my evidence.
“It makes me wonder about you, Emmy.” He puts his hands together and collects his thoughts, like he’s about to lecture a child. “Have you been getting therapy, Emmy? You badly need help. We’d love to have you return, of course, but only after we’ve seen some progress in your treatment.”
He can hardly suppress a smile as he says this. He and I have history; he was the one who had me brought up on disciplinary charges for inappropriate conduct that got me suspended—I’m sorry, in bureaucratic-legal lingo, placed on unpaid administrative leave. I’ve still got seven weeks before I return, and even then, it will be a sixty-day probationary period. If I hadn’t had a recent death in the family, I probably would have been canned.
He knows the real reason why I was brought up on charges. We both do. So he’s taunting me here. I can’t let him get under my skin. That’s what he wants. He wants me to blow up, so he can tell the brass that I’m not ready to return.
“Somebody’s running around the country killing people,” I say. “That should concern you whether I’m in therapy or not.”
His eyes narrow. He doesn’t have to do anything here; I’m the one who wants something. So this is his idea of torture, sitting there tight-lipped and stubborn.
“Concentrate on your rehabilitation, Emmy. Leave the law enforcement to us.”
He keeps repeating my name. I’d rather he spit on me and called me names. And he knows that. This is the passive-aggressive version of waterboarding. I wasn’t sure he’d see me today, unannounced. Now, I realize, he probably couldn’t wait to see me, to shut me down, to laugh directly in my face.
He and I have a history, like I said. Here’s the short version: he’s a pig.
“This isn’t about me,” I insist. “It’s about a guy who —”
“Are you feeling angry right now, Emmy? Do you feel like you’re in control of your emotions?” He looks me over with mock concern. “Because your face is getting red. Your hands are balled up in fists. I’m concerned you still can’t contain your emotions. We have counselors on staff, Emmy, if you need someone to talk to.”
He sounds like a late-night commercial for chemical dependency. We have counselors waiting to talk to you. Call now!
There’s no point in proceeding further, I realize. It was dumb of me to come. Dumb of me to expect he’d listen to me in person. I was screwed before I got here. I get up and turn to leave.
“Good luck with your therapy,” he calls out. “We’re all rooting for you.”
I stop at the door and look back at him.
“This man is killing people all over the country,” I say, one hand on his office door. “And it’s not that we’re chasing him and can’t catch him. It’s that we don’t even know there’s someone to catch. It’s like he doesn’t even exist to us.”
Nothing from the Dick but his cupped hand, a tiny wave good-bye. I slam the door behind me.