by Christopher Pate
killed the engine and leaned forward to scan the
back of the rundown mall through the van’s grimy windshield and side windows as
accelerant sloshed quietly in the back of the van. The parking lot and loading
bay appeared empty and quiet under the few working orange sodium lights.
felt edgy. Being keyed up before a job wasn't
unusual, but things felt different somehow this time. Something he couldn't
quite put a finger on set alarm bells softly jangling. He scratched the back of
his neck, his lean frame tense and nerves tingling. He made no move to exit the
van as his dark eyes flicked anxiously from one shadow to the next.
gonna do this or wha’?” Came the too loud words. “I’m
starvin’. C’mon, Ernesto, ain’t nobody around just like we figured.”
eyes cut to Tommy Villa hunched over in the
passenger seat. A big lunk, more often used to send blunt messages via scarred
fists and battered boots than anything requiring an ounce of finesse, he was
the help Ernesto was stuck with for this job. Lucky him.
exited the van without responding and moved to open
the rear doors. Tommy followed in his rolling gait.
men wore gray coveralls with the name of a local
construction company stenciled across their backs. They unloaded buckets filled
with equipment, and each slung a heavy canvas bag over their shoulders. Closing
the van, they hefted their loads and strode toward the loading bay.
Ernesto, why don’t yous just douse da place in
gasoline ‘n toss a match?” Tommy grunted as he labored under the weight of the
buckets and canvas bag. “I mean, seems quicker. In and out, right? Job done.”
don’t you give your mouth a rest and save your breath,
huh? For a big guy, you sure get winded easy.” Ernesto opened the door at the
loading bay with a key. Tommy was muscle and an extra set of hands; that was
all. Ernesto, on the other hand, was the one under the gun to make this job
look good. If it appeared to be arson, the insurance investigators would start
digging, and until they finished, there would be no payment, if ever, and the
bosses wanted a payout for this dump. ASAP.
set down his load near the store's entry to the
rest of the mall. The whole thing was a rotting relic of last century's
galleria craze. Last century, Ernesto snorted as he thought to himself. Last
millennium more like. Hard to believe this place was fifty years old.
store was even more of a dump inside - most of the
merchandise had long been removed, stolen, or trashed. Empty display cases and
old clothes racks were shoved together in tumbled, unstable-looking piles.
Spray paint tags adorned the walls in overlapping, competing art and gang
signs. Stinking piles of clothing and trash lay in heaped testament to the
homeless who sometimes sheltered here. None seemed present now.
or more mannequins huddled together in a tight bunch
near the door, some still draped in dust-caked clothing that might have been
fashionable fifteen years ago. Ernesto studied them closely, wanting to make
sure a junkie or bum wasn't hiding among the assembled dummies.
a blonde-wigged female model, seemed to make eye
contact with Ernesto with a steady stare. The mannequin's eyes were vivid green
in the wash of their flashlights. It seemed to watch him as he moved. Ernesto
found himself unnerved by that gaze.
high-pitched cackle broke the spell.
Ernesto! Ain't this some shit?" The hulking
man held a moldy sign picked up from the floor, shaking off the fallen grit and
ceiling tiles. Faded red letters emblazoned the poster board, 'Fire Sale — Everything
cackled again and flung the sign to whirl away. It
slithered across the scarred tile floor to knock against the foot of the green-eyed
mannequin in a puff of dust and cobwebs. The store dummy wobbled slightly, but
the green stare remained locked on Ernesto.
do like I told you," Ernesto growled as he
tore his gaze away, nodded toward the long-frozen escalator, and pulled a can
of accelerant from a bucket.
the stuff thin along the base of the walls on
the second floor. Don't get sloppy. Get going." Ernesto moved toward one
of the ground floor walls. The ground floor was the key. Get it right, and the
blaze would spread and quickly become unstoppable. Tommy's work on the second
floor was just insurance.
small, wiry man paused to look over his shoulder,
feeling that tingle at the back of his neck again as he knelt by the wall
before applying the gelled concoction with a paintbrush. The green-eyed
mannequin was somehow still in his line of sight, its gaze evident even in the
low gloom. He blinked and averted his eyes. The thing was creepy.
whole place was weird, he grumbled to himself, but it
didn't matter. It would be gone after tonight and everything inside too.
work was tedious, but Ernesto was a man who paid
attention to the details. It was one of the reasons they called on him for jobs
like this. Jobs that had to be done right or there would be consequences. The
type of people he worked for always found someone to pay when things went
south. So, he did as ordered quickly and efficiently and took care of all the
stood, groaning as he straightened and stretched
muscles kinked from all the kneeling and bending over. The department store was
barn-like in its near-empty, dilapidated state. A couple of hours had already
slipped by. It was getting close to midnight.
turned, opened his mouth to shout out to Tommy, and
stumbled back with a startled gasp, dropping the goop-laden brush. The
green-eyed mannequin loomed out of the dusty darkness, almost within arm's
Ernesto bent to pick up the brush and stepped
closer to examine the figurine. His flashlight still lay on the floor, facing
the wall, casting indirect light. The store dummy's shadow and his own
stretched long and cadaverously thin along the cluttered floor.
mannequin showed its wear and tear. An age-brittled
honey-blonde wig formed a stiff halo about its perpetually smiling face. A face
riddled with hairline cracks, grime, and old, greasy fingerprints smearing its
features like drunkenly applied makeup. Those startlingly green eyes were
almost luminescent in the murk.
couldn't be the one he saw earlier, Ernesto thought. He
was on the opposite end of the building. Yet, if it wasn't, it must be a carbon
copy. It seemed so much like that other one. Ernesto stepped closer, head
tilting as he examined the figurine more closely.
I ain’t interruptin’ yous two, am I?” Tommy sniggered
as he clumped up behind the mannequin.
sure got a purty mouth.” The thick-necked,
thick-headed lunk grabbed the mannequin by the back of its neck and shoved its
head at his crotch. Tommy made loud grunting noises as he humped its face.
a sick fuck, you know that?” Ernesto turned away in
disgust, collecting the near-empty accelerant container and brush. “C’mon,
let’s finish up.”
baby.” Tommy released the store dummy, and it fell
to the floor with an echoing whunk.
He chortled and blew a sloppy kiss to the mannequin as it seemed to stare after
the retreating pair.
squatted by the canvas bags, flashlight cradled
between chin and neck as he snapped together parts for the fuse he devised for
jobs like this.
is that stuff anyhow?” Tommy had found a dented
aluminum ball bat and, being Tommy when he was bored, methodically began to
smash display case glass, one shattering blow after the other.
ordinary stuff you’d find in the wall of any place like
this. Most will burn or melt, and no one will think twice when they find it.”
Ernesto chewed his lip in concentration as he worked. “Now, shaddup and let me
as grumpy as they all say,” Tommy grunted as he
whirled the bat like a major league slugger. A mannequin's head flew and
bounced along the floor with hollow clunks before rolling to a stop.
the hell?" Ernesto jerked his head up in time to
see the lump of muscle taking aim at another figurine.
Another head clattered across the floor to pitch up against a precariously
leaning display case. The case tottered, held for a moment, and then hit the
floor with a resounding crash that boomed throughout the abandoned store.
Tommy!” Ernesto rose, features darkening in
anger. “This is supposed to be quick and quiet. Knock it off!”
chief!” Tommy winked as he took another swing at a
mannequin. Ernesto blinked. It had honey-blonde hair and intense green eyes.
He screamed at Tommy. The big man jerked in surprise,
his aim off as his head snapped wide-eyed toward Ernesto. The bat struck the
dummy above the hip with a loud thunk,
and the figurine canted hard to the side, Quasimodo-ish. Its golden wig fell to
green eyes remained on Ernesto.
Christ, Tommy! Why don’t you just step outside and
blow a fuckin’ air horn?” Ernesto stomped up to the bigger man staring daggers.
screw up this job, and the bosses will make sure
you’re sucking face with the fishes before tomorrow is done. Count on it, moron.”
Ernesto yanked the bat out of Tommy’s hands and let it fall to the floor with a
lumpish thug looked sheepish and resentful at the same
time. Ernesto knew Tommy could take him apart without breaking a sweat, but the
job wouldn't get done if he did, and Tommy's fate would be grim.
okay, Ernesto. Just havin’ a little fun, ya know?
Don’t get worked up.” Tommy stuffed his meaty hands into his coverall pockets,
be a putz.” Ernesto poked a finger into the other man’s
wait here and don’t do anything stupid. Hold it. No.
Don’t do anything at all ‘cause you don’t do nothin’ but
stupid. Got me?" Ernesto bent and clicked a few more
things into place on the device he'd been fiddling with, then snapped a battery
into a slot. A tiny light flared red. He set the contraption down by the wall
in a faintly glimmering strip of smeared accelerant.
going upstairs to check your work.” Ernesto didn’t
look to see if the lugnut understood. He tramped up the escalator, flashlight
guiding his steps.
took Ernesto longer than anticipated. As he feared,
Tommy hadn't been very thorough. Not much work was needed on the second floor,
but a few critical spots done right would significantly increase the fire's
momentum, and the place would be fully engulfed before the first fire truck
pulled out of its station.
dropped the dripping brush when he heard Tommy’s
bolted toward the escalator landing, leaned over
the railing, and shouted into the darkness below.
What the hell’s going on? Tommy!” He spun toward
the escalator, and something struck him hard across the back of the head.
fell down the escalator, heard bones snap, and felt the
metal teeth of each step bite into flesh as he tumbled. He hit the first floor
in a broken, bloody heap.
forced his eyes open and tried to turn his head.
Hot, agonized spikes lanced through his neck. He knew he should be feeling more
pain, though. He remembered bones breaking in sickening, sodden pops, but he
felt nothing. Nothing below his neck.
no.” He gasped and blinked gummy eyelids, but
it was pitch black.
a light flashed in chaotic strobes at the top of the
escalator. A white light that stammered and stuttered, throwing long, jagged
shadows. Ernesto dimly realized that he must have dropped his flashlight up
there, damaging it, and it now flashed randomly.
moved up there.
Ernesto's voice rasped weakly. His tongue
felt thick, and he had difficulty swallowing. "Tommy, is that you?"
light pulsed starkly, outlining a figure that stood
near the escalator's second-floor landing. Then the light snapped off and again
plunged Ernesto's world into deep darkness.
came on again. A figure leaned sickeningly to the right
a few steps down the escalator.
The figure, bald and lithely built, stood a few steps
lower, its form canted grotesquely to the left now.
The crooked, shadowy form perched a few steps from the
The dim silhouette tilted stomach-churningly to one
side, arms out, hands extended clawlike at the escalator's base.
It hovered over Ernesto with bright green eyes visible
even in the shadows.
groaned and passed out.
woke, coughing up blood. He spat the thick, coppery
fluid and gasped. He blinked, but he saw nothing. It was black as a cave. He
was standing upright, though, and he raised one hand to feel around, or tried
to. His hand refused to move.
His voice shook, and his head throbbed
your shit together, Ernesto." He closed his eyes
or thought he did in the dense blackness and concentrated on moving his legs.
Nothing. He felt no movement—no sensation at all from the neck down. A low moan
fell from his lips as he turned his head first one way and then the other.
dull red light throbbed off to his left. It was low,
almost floor-level, and its small bulb cast almost zero illumination.
His words came out thickly, and a rattle
gurgled in his chest. He gagged up more blood and then coughed to clear his
are you there?”
made him look back toward the red light. Blue flames streaked along the lines
of accelerant painstakingly laid out along the floor. They spread very fast.
fuck." Ernesto struggled and tried to move, to
tumble and roll across the floor, but his limbs might as well have been unanswering
stone, thick and inert.
Tommy! Where are you?" He looked around
wildly as the flames began to lick up the walls. The blue flames streaked along
the floor faster than a man could run. Red-tinged spittle flew from his lips as
he whipped his head, peering into the flame-spawned shadows.
saw Tommy in the growing light. The big man lay
sprawled on one of the battered display cases with a mannequin's arm shoved
deep down his throat, making his thick neck bulge hideously. The mannequin's
extended hand was turned toward Ernesto as if frozen amid a friendly wave.
Oh, Jesus Christ. What the fuck?" He could
feel the heat now as the fire spread furiously. The store's interior
incandesced in blinding yellows and oranges. Ernesto felt his short locks
curling in the heat and smelled burnt hair.
he saw her standing beside him as the flames surged.
The mannequin. The one with the green eyes. She had her blonde wig back. She
still slumped brokenly to one side, but he saw as he looked down she had one
arm hooked about his as if they were lovers out for a casual beach stroll.
exploded near the loading bay, and a wave of
searing heat roared through the cavernous interior. Flaming ceiling tiles
realized he was propped up on a few cloth racks,
draped across their metal arms as if he were on display. He was dressed in
spring pastels, shorts, and a polo shirt, but the clothing was streaked with
dark red blotches. Craning his neck, he saw a jagged, blood-smeared bone
projecting from his leg, and his right hand was bent so far its back touched
his wrist and forearm.
pastels adorned the mannequin. Ernesto giggled as
he thought they made quite the couple. Flames began to lick up his legs and
those of the mannequin as he hung there, unable to move more than his head.
explosion shook the building, and metal screamed as
part of the roof sagged.
rush of skin-blackening heat lifted a poster from the
floor, and it fluttered by Ernesto. He blinked as he took in the little details
right to the last.
Fire Sale —
Everything Must Go!
began to laugh, spewing dark blood as the fire raced up
flames and smoke obscured his vision, but he looked at
the mannequin in his last moment of clarity. Her clothes and hair blazed
merrily, but he clearly saw one bright green eye closed now in a flirty wink as
the other stared into his watering eyes.
maniacal laughter competed with the fire’s roar
until the fire allowed him to laugh no longer.
Pate was born in a
small rural Ohio farming town and currently lives with his wife, daughter, and
dog in coastal Virginia. He was short-listed in The Write Practice's Spring
2022 Writing Contest and has previously been published at Short Fiction Break.