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Every Fire Wants to Kill
About the Author: My story “Two Sharks Walk into a Bar” appeared in Mystery Magazine (September 2022) and will be re-issued this fall in The Mysterious Bookshop Presents the Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2023. Another story, “Kit’s Pad,” will soon be published in EQMM. Pegasus Crime published my two novels, both World War II spy thrillers: The Dead Don’t Bleed and Rip the Angels from Heaven. Both received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly.

“Here,” Benton pointed.

Dapp pumped the handle of the 30-gallon barrel strapped to a dolly, raised the nozzle, and sprayed the mottled plaster. In undulating passes, he misted the wall, starting at the crown molding along the bedroom ceiling and finishing at the quarter round strip along the floor. Benton watched, arms crossed. Left hand aching from squeezing the pump handle, Dapp looked at the older man.


Benton grunted. “Quit paintin’. You gotta—”

“Butterfly it, I know.”

Benton glared, stormed off. Dapp followed, pushing the dolly. The next room had tall bay windows, a pocket door, and decorative scrollwork. Benton walked alongside the walls, studying them. He nimbly sidestepped the gash in the floor where the radiator had been ripped out, along with the steam pipes. When he finished circling the room, he shot Dapp a hard look.

“All right, Mr.-Know-It-All, get to it.” 

Don’t talk to me like that! Dapp checked his retort, fought his anger. The wire, he called it. Like a downed power line, flaring, whipping back and forth, sparks flying whenever someone wronged him. But berating Benton would backfire. For now, he had to tolerate the disrespect. Taking a deep breath, he wheeled the dolly to the broken floor. Keeping a light touch on the release, he sprayed into the hole, gently raising the nozzle to feather—or, as Benton liked to say, “butterfly”—the wall.

“Wings,” Benton ordered.

Dapp sprayed the molding, fanning out onto the ceiling. He lowered the nozzle and glanced over.

Benton stalked out without saying anything.

Dapp swore under his breath. He wound up the hose and steered the dolly toward the stairs. Benton was already going down. Dapp awkwardly stretched his arms and bent his back to lower the dolly, step by step. The barrel sloshed, the wheels thumped.

“Cut out that racket,” Benton snapped over his shoulder.

The wire flared. But Dapp still held his tongue.

After they secured the dolly in the van, the two men re-entered the vacant two flat and went into the basement. Dapp switched on his flashlight, directing the beam at the mussed blanket and dirty mattress they had placed next to the wooden wall of the boiler room. Benton crouched. He looked at the blanket, then peered up at the splintered hole in the ceiling where the living room radiator had once been mounted.

“Something’s not right,” he muttered.

Dapp said nothing. He wasn’t being asked for his opinion.

“So I’m this bum”—Benton poked the mattress—“and this is my squat. Why here?”

Because we need a line up to the living room, Dapp thought.

Benton stood. “We gotta move this crap.”

“I already sprayed.”

Cold stare. “This bum, he’s gonna flop under a big hole in the ceiling? Would you?”

Dapp didn’t answer. Benton was right. Their imaginary homeless man wouldn’t pick that spot to sleep. If they could see it, so could an investigator.

Benton walked around the boiler room. “Bring it here,” jabbing a finger.

“What about our line?”

“You’re gonna have to spray again.”

“But the barrel’s …” Dapp didn’t finish. If the staging had to move, so did the line up. The treatment was starting to dry, he had to hustle. He grabbed the mattress and dragged it to the other side of the boiler room, the ragged blanket trailing.

Benton ticked his head at the stairs.     

Dapp ran to the van, retrieved the dolly, horsed it into the basement. If he tells me to butterfly it … He imagined what he would do if the old man lobbed another insult or addressed him rudely.

But Benton behaved, saying nothing as Dapp sprayed a new line. From a rustling paper bag, Benton took out a blue-tipped wooden match, a filtered cigarette, and newspaper shreds. He carefully arranged the shreds between the mattress and the boiler room wall. He put the cigarette in his mouth, gripped the match, and flicked the head with his thumbnail. The match hissed. He lit the cigarette, inhaled deeply, exhaled a cloud of smoke.

“You know I quit smoking two years ago?”

“Good for you.”

This story appears in our AUG 2023 Issue
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