You Will Welcome Death

bywantsomefun1951©

He took the cap off one, set it in the open doorway and tipped it over, so that gasoline flowed across the floor in the back part of the building. He opened the other and poured it onto the work room floor.

"Maybe we should stop it here, Josh," Bertoli said.

"Play it!" I snapped.

Frank stood in the middle of the lake of gasoline with an odd smile on his face. He pulled a lighter out of his pocket, kissed it, studied it for a few seconds, and then flicked the wheel. Through the fireball, the camera showed Frank still holding onto the lighter as his clothes burned. Then the screen went black.

"That's when the alarm came in," Hayes said. "Go to the outdoor cameras, Mario. There's the pizza cam at the same time, four twenty-seven. We see fire in the windows, and at four twenty-eight, the drugstore cam shows the front windows blowing out on the ground floor and heavy fire upstairs."

"You want me to tell you why."

"If you have any ideas, we'd like to hear them," Hayes said.

"I don't know. Sirens woke me. I smelled smoke, so I got dressed and walked down the street to find out what was going on. The roof caved in soon after I got there," I said, watching video of the inferno that had been Main Street Rare Books, my friend's home and life.

"Do you have any idea why Mr. Brown would have done that? From what we've learned so far, the business was turning a profit, so arson for an insurance scam doesn't sound right," Bertoli offered. "Especially since he must have known he would die, starting it that way."

"I never saw that expression on Frank's face before. He looked like a madman," I said. "That's what gets me. Frank was fine when I left. He wasn't despondent or upset. He seemed excited about helping me get information about the drawing I bought. This doesn't make sense."

"I'm sorry you had to see that, Mr. Singleton," Bertoli said.

"If we're done here, I'd like to go. I think I ate something I shouldn't have."

After being violently ill in the restroom in the lobby of the police station, I struggled outside. I wasn't sure I could drive, since my headache was so bad, but after I got in the car, I felt a little better. By the time I got back to my shop, I was more or less the way I had been before I left. I showered and changed clothes, and worked on the new shelves I was building in the shop.

That evening, I thought I was coming down with the flu again. I had ginger ale and saltines for dinner and crawled into bed.

I'm sure I got some sleep, but I woke up a number of times. The images from those videos haunted me -- watching your best friend burn himself to death doesn't lend itself to a restful night. Through my pounding headache, I tried to think in the darkness. What happened? Why did Frank get up in the middle of the night and commit suicide by self-immolation? What drives a man to do that?

In the shower the next morning, I decided I had to carry on as though Frank's death hadn't happened. I could make myself as crazy as he must have been worrying about it, so I convinced myself that I would never understand it anyway.

It was time to get to work. I spent the entire day unpacking and pricing the rest of my purchases from the auction. Along with a lot of trash, I found a number of license plates from the 1940's, a few pieces of decent silver, a mint-condition yearbook from the local high school with both the Collins' senior pictures, and some nice old jewelry. Not a bad haul. I would get over two thousand dollars for this stuff.

Still, the drawing might be the big find. It seemed special, maybe valuable. I cleared an area on my desk and carefully flattened out my sketch so I could study it. It was beautiful, powerful, its bold lines and careful shading making it seem alive.

Suddenly, I was confused. The monkey-thing had pointed ears and an ugly scowl, hateful eyes glaring toward the corner where Frank had taken his sample. Odd. I could have sworn it was staring directly at the viewer before. Ridiculous. Stress, grief, and oncoming illness explained everything. The awfulness of the scene matched my mood, almost cheered me up. If my drawing didn't turn out to be worth much, I knew I'd wind up framing it and hanging it over the mantel, like the auctioneer said.

"Earth to Carl. You have customers in the shop," a female voice behind me laughed.

I spun around in my chair, annoyed at the interruption, even though it was my old friend Marge. I always enjoyed her company on slow days in the store. Marge was the woman everyone thought I was going to marry when I got out of high school. We both knew it was a stupid idea, so we promised each other to be friends. Sometimes, she helped me out in the shop, or invited me to dinner with her husband Bob and their kids.

"I think they might like some customer service," she giggled, setting down a carrier with two coffees from the shop around the corner.

We waited on the couple together, and Marge wrapped their purchases. She was always good with that, and I was happy for her help in packaging the set of antique glassware they bought.

Marge wanted to look at some old record albums I had on display, so I helped her sort through them. By the time she made her choice, my head hurt. "You brought coffee, didn't you?" I asked. "I'm getting a headache. Caffeine sometimes helps."

We went in the office and sat down. Marge opened our coffees, now cool enough to drink, and we talked about poor Frank. She told me more or less what was in the newspaper. Frank Brown died in an apparent arson fire that destroyed his shop. She speculated on who would have done such a horrible thing to a guy as nice as Frank.

Dabbing her eyes, she asked, "Did you get anything good at the Collins auction? You said you were going."

"I did pretty well. There was some silverware in a few of the boxes I got as dollar man, enough to complete some services I already have of the same pattern, and some old license plates that are in decent shape."

"What's that?" Marge asked, pointing to my drawing.

"Not sure yet. Frank thought it was pretty old, so I was going to do some research to see what I could learn about it. I have a feeling I've seen this picture before, or something like it. It's really pretty, isn't it?"

"I don't know that I'd call it pretty," Marge said, standing up to get a better look at it. "It's very well done, but that's not a pretty scene. I mean, look at the face on that thing! It looks like some sort of demon." She leaned over to point at the monkey-like creature, spilling her half-full coffee cup.

I felt like I was moving in slow motion as I snatched my drawing away from the advancing flood. I was almost too late, but only a small part of the edge got wet. "You stupid clumsy bitch!" I screamed, frantically blotting at the tiny stain. It cleaned up easily, but I was still furious. "What the hell is wrong with you?"

"Carl, what the hell is wrong with you? I'm sorry, but aren't you over-reacting a little? Look at it. It's fine."

"You could have ruined it! You could have ruined everything!"

"I'm sorry, Carl, I really am. You're right, I was clumsy. At least I didn't get coffee on your keyboard.

"Keyboards can be replaced! The drawing can't! It's important. I have to protect it." I inspected the sketch again, and when I couldn't find any damage, I felt myself calming down.

"You're really upset about Frank, aren't you?" she said.

"I am. I just can't believe it happened."

"Carl, I heard a rumor that Frank started the fire. One of my neighbors is a fireman, and his wife told me he said he could smell gasoline when he first got there, like there must have been a lot of it. She also told me all the doors were locked from the inside. Why would he have gas in there?"

"I wish I knew. Yes, the rumor is true. The police were here, asking me about Frank, and they showed me security video that proves Frank did it. He brought the gasoline into the store in the middle of the night and intentionally lit the fire."

"Why?"

"I don't know."

When Marge left, I was almost glad. I've known her as long as I knew Frank, and I've always enjoyed her company, so I wondered why I was happier alone. Maybe it was guilt about snapping at her. At least my headache was gone.

A few more customers interrupted my day of researching my treasure. Along with the other things I wrote down, I made a note to look into different bulbs for the lighting in the display area of my store. Colors didn't look quite right out there, and it seemed like the light hurt my eyes. Every time I was in the sales area for a long time, my temples started to throb.

I was very glad to hang out my "Closed" sign. I wanted to learn more about the artist whose work this sketch may have been. Customers spending a few dollars were a distraction from spending time on the thing that might change my life.

The synthesized bells in the tower of the church down the street struck twelve midnight. No wonder I was exhausted. I went to bed without eating, hoping I might feel better in the morning if I let my system calm down.

My phone woke me from my fitful sleep before six in the morning. "Carl? It's Bob."

"Bob, do you have any idea what time it is?"

He started crying. "I wanted to be the one to tell you. Marge is dead."

"What?"

"She's dead, Carl. What am I going to do? The kids are still in bed. My mother came over to watch them while I went with the police. She'd dead!" He didn't even try to stifle his wails this time.

"What happened?"

"I don't know. She said she didn't feel well when we went to bed. I woke up when I heard her car in the middle of the night. I have no idea where she was going. Now she's dead!"

"She was in a car accident?"

"She was speeding, and the cops were chasing her. She ran cars off the road, and then she got on the interstate going the wrong way. They said she was going over a hundred miles an hour when she veered off the pavement and into a bridge abutment. Why, Carl? Why would my baby do that?"

"Where are you now, Bob?"

"At the morgue. I have to fill out some forms, and then the cops are giving me a ride home."

"I'll go to your house and help your mom. We'll get through this."

In the shower, I broke down. I had lost a second life-long friend before the memorial service for the first. No wonder I felt like hell.

I forced myself to eat breakfast, which was a mistake. Before I was halfway to Bob and Marge's place, I pulled off the road, my stomach cramping painfully as it emptied itself on the ground. My head was pounding again, my joints ached, and I felt feverish and weak. Bob and the kids needed me, but they didn't need me to make them sick. I turned around and headed home. By the time I locked my car, I felt like I might live.

It was late enough in the morning that I thought the kids would be up and Bob would probably be home. His mom answered the phone. "Mrs. Fitzgerald, it's Carl Singleton. Bob called me. I'm so sorry about Marge. I told Bob I'd come over to help you, but I'm really sick."

"That's all right, Carl," she said. "You concentrate on getting better. I can hold down the fort. It's my job. You know I used to babysit Frank, don't you? I watched you kids grow up. Maybe Frank's death was God preparing me for this."

"Maybe. Tell Bob I'll call him this evening, regardless of how sick I am, or he can call me."

I didn't open the shop. Instead, I went upstairs and crawled back in bed. I couldn't sleep, so I went downstairs with some ginger ale to study my drawing.

I was feeling half decent after an hour or two of studying nuances of the artist's drawing that I hadn't noticed before, comparing it to renditions I had found of similar subject matter. None of them were the same, although they contained the same elements -- a sprawled-out woman, a demon, and a horse with bulging, blind-looking eyes. Oddly, in my drawing, it seemed the horse's weren't focused on the viewer, although I thought it looked that way at before. Now, the horse appeared to be glaring off to one side, toward the slightly puckered edge dampened by Marge's spilled coffee.

My memory was playing tricks on me, not surprising, considering what I had experienced in the last two days. At least, sitting there with my drawing, I felt halfway healthy, thrilled with what I learned. My sketch was a definitely a preliminary study by Henry Fuseli for his "Nightmare" series. That or a damn good forgery.

I was deeply immersed in an article on art forgery when the buzzer on the front door of the shop went off. Damn it! What do they think a sign that says "CLOSED" in big black letters means?

The person buzzed again. And again, finally leaning on the buzzer for a while. Then the knocking started.

No! I wasn't going to answer. I had more important things to do. I needed to stay right here, learning more about my wonderful drawing.

The shop phone rang, but I let the answering machine get it. Then it was my apartment line, and finally my cell. I forced myself not to yell when I answered. "What do you want, Detective Bertoli?"

"Mr. Singleton, are you all right?"

"Sure! My two best friends just committed suicide, and I'm sick as a dog. Thanks for asking."

"I'm not on duty right now. I'm at your door. May I come in? I'm worried about you."

"Are you current on your shots? I don't know what I have. I keep thinking it's the flu, but the symptoms come and go."

"I'll take my chances. Please open the door. I'm here as a man, not a cop."

I opened the front door and walked back to my office, squinting with the pain in my eyes and head. As soon as I was better, I was definitely doing a lighting upgrade.

Bertoli closed and locked the door behind himself and followed me to my desk.

"Sit down, Detective Bertoli."

"It's Mario. May I call you Carl?"

"That's my name."

"Carl, I'm going to tell you something, but I'm going to ask you to keep it in confidence for now. Can I trust you to do that?"

"Of course, but what's all this about?"

"Some things leading up to Mrs. Fitzgerald's death. Her husband Robert doesn't know this yet."

"What?"

"You know that she was being pursued by police, don't you?

"Bob told me."

"Do you know why we were chasing her?"

"She was involved in some hit-and-runs and was going a hundred miles an hour the wrong way on the interstate."

"Yes, but the original pursuit started when her car was seen leaving at a high rate of speed from two different store break-ins."

"Store break-ins? Marge?"

"Your friend was a recovering alcoholic, wasn't she?"

"Yes. She just celebrated the fifteen year anniversary of her last drink. Was she drunk?"

"No. Zero blood alcohol, but she broke into a liquor store and a drugstore. We found a large amount of sleeping pills, a pack of razor blades, and some broken wine bottles in the wreckage."

"That makes no sense. Marge wouldn't do that."

"From what we know, Mrs. Fitzgerald wouldn't do a lot of the things she did this morning. She broke into a liquor store. The owner saw her and confronted her, but she threw a bottle at him and sped away. The pursuit started when she hit a police car responding to the drugstore alarm. This was a woman who never even had a parking ticket."

"That's crazy. Marge was a careful driver. I would have trusted her with my car any time. When she was a drinker, she never drove."

"Carl, this is important. You went to school with her. Did she drive fast then? The units chasing her said she drove like a pro, knocking cars out of the way like a stunt driver. Maybe she just never got caught driving recklessly."

"No. Marge was a total safety nut. Always had to have the best tires, changed her wiper blades before she needed to, never exceeded the speed limit, wouldn't start the car until everyone fastened their seat-belt, the whole bit."

"Her seat-belt was buckled behind her. Cars like hers chime the whole time you have the key on if you don't buckle the driver's belt, so people who insist on not wearing one have to buckle it and sit on it. You would think someone like Mrs. Fitzgerald would be the last one to do that."

That's when I knew. Marge wasn't sure she'd get the chance to swallow those pills with that wine or cut an artery. A high speed run into a concrete bridge was her fall-back plan.

"Why?" Bertoli asked. "This looks like a suicide. Do you have any idea why?"

"No. She stopped by here yesterday afternoon. We quarreled, something we haven't done since we dated in high school, but it wasn't anything you kill yourself over."

"She told her husband you were in a bad mood yesterday."

"I don't even know what kind of a mood I'm in. I feel like hell. I can't keep anything down. I thought I was running a fever this morning when I tried to drive to Bob's house after he called me. I got so sick I had to turn around and come home. I have a headache a lot of the time. I feel like crying or smashing things, and I'm so damn weak. The only thing that's keeping me sane right now, I think, is researching the drawing I bought at the Collins sale."

"You mentioned that. You said you showed it to Frank."

"Yes. He even translated the note that's written on the back."

"May I see it?" Bertoli asked.

"Sure. It's beautiful. I'm so lucky I found it in a box of trash I got from the sale." Carefully, I spread it out on my desk. "Look. Isn't it amazing? Every time I look at it, I see more detail."

Bertoli stood next to me, studying it. "The demon or incubus or whatever that thing is and the horse look like they're staring right through me. What do you think this is?" he asked, pointing at some sort of bottle on a table near the woman's bed, something I hadn't noticed before.

"Please don't touch it," I cried out, shielding it from his hand. "It's kind of fragile."

"Um, sure, sorry. What does the note say on the back?"

I turned the paper over.

"Oh," Bertoli said. "I had to study Latin in Catholic school. That's a pretty stern warning."

"That's what Frank said."

Bertoli stepped back from my desk. "I should be going. We promised to tell you anything we found out about the fire, so I thought I owed you the truth about Mrs. Fitzgerald, too. I'll pray for them."

Without another word, he left my office, fumbled in his pocket for something, and opened the front door. He stood outside, watching me lock up, and then walked away. I saw what he pulled from his pocket -- his rosary.

I went back to my office and studied my drawing again against the photos I had found of the completed paintings. Their composition was different from the sketch, though they were obviously all inspired by the same power. Even though the paintings added color to help tell their story to the viewer, I decided I liked my pencil sketch better. The incubus was the focal point. He seemed much larger than before.

The damn phone rang again. It was Bob. What was I supposed to say to him? I finally shut the ringer off. I didn't feel like I was dying, for a change, so I decided to rummage around in my kitchen. I started up the stairs, but then realized I could work on my research about the drawing while I ate, so I carefully carried the drawing and my laptop upstairs and set up shop at the kitchen table.

Canned soup never tasted so good. Mindful of the risk of spilling something on the sketch, I ate standing up at the counter. An hour after I finished the soup, I knew it wasn't enough. My stomach felt good, and it clamored for more. I worked a little longer, and then made myself a proper early dinner. I ate quickly, running back and forth between the counter and the table, chewing while I searched for more information about the artist and his work.

After doing the dishes, I moved my base of operations to the sofa. My sketch carefully laid out on the coffee table, I went back to work, although my eyes were constantly drawn to the sketch instead of the computer. I stopped to watch the eleven o'clock news, but I dozed off. I woke up sometime in the middle of the night, took my shoes off, and stretched out more comfortably. Light from the street-lamp let me see my precious drawing again before I closed my eyes. The incubus' facial expression had calmed into a cruel grin. I slept soundly.

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