Trial by Fire

The following story is fictional and does not depict any actual person or event.

February 8, 1999

("Semi-Charmed Life" - Third Eye Blind)

The waitress winced as she carried the towering stack of plates into the kitchen and over to the dishwasher. "Here you go, Tom." she said with more than a hint of strain in her voice as she set them down.

Tom Armstrong, the burly, middle-aged cook, immediately stepped away from his grill and hurried over to the twenty year-old, brown-haired waitress. "Hey, Amelia, you don't need to carry so many at once." He said with a friendly, but slightly admonishing tone. "The rush is over. I don't want you getting hurt or anything."

Amelia Fuentes rolled her eyes before giving him a smile. "I'm fine, Tom. Nothing's gonna happen."

Tom smiled back. "Okay, so anyone left?"

Amelia smirked and gestured with her head to one of the tables in the diner. "Just you-know-who."

"Oh, him." Tom sighed, looking through the kitchen to the table in the corner, where the diner's sole occupant, a twenty-something young man, was staring into the laptop on his table, typing away, with only brief pauses to sip his coffee. The plate of bacon, eggs, and hashbrowns had barely been touched.

Tom shook his head. "I still say there's somethin' off about that guy."

Amelia cocked her head and put her hands on her hips. "Come on, leave him alone. He's nice, he doesn't bother anyone, always leaves a nice tip. So what if he not that chatty?"

Tom just looked at her skeptically. "I'm just sayin' it's always the quiet ones who try somethin'."

Amelia sighed and rolled her eyes again. "I'm gonna go see if he needs a refill."

She picked up the coffee pot and walked over to the young man's table, where he was still engrossed in the laptop, typing relentlessly.

"Charlie?" she asked, causing him to jolt slightly, stop typing, and look up at her. "Sorry to startle to you." She said with a smile, holding up the pot. "Just wondering if you wanted me to top you off."

Charlie nodded nervously. "Uhhh... yeah, thanks."

She looked over at the ignored plate of food. "You know, that's gonna get cold."

Charlie looked down at the plate, then back up at her. "Oh, uh, don't worry. I'll eat it. I'm just trying to finish this." He gestured to the laptop screen.

"You know I see you in here all the time on this thing." Amelia bent over and peeked at the screen curiously. "Never really seen one of these up close." She leaned closer, with her head right next to Charlie's, before turning to him. "What do you do on this anyway?"

Charlie, looking slightly flustered for a moment, seem to pause to find his words. "Uhhh, well it's article I'm writing for an industry journal."

"Oh yeah? What kind of article?"

Charlie shifted uneasily. "Uh, well it's a lot of technical stuff. Most people think it's boring."

"Oh." she said with a trace of disappointment. She stood up, then shrugged, and poured some coffee into his cup. "Okay, well let me know if you want some more."

Charlie watched her walk off, struggling to say something. "I.. It's about aerodynamics." He finally blurted out.

Amelia stopped and turned around, smiling slightly. "Aerodynamics? You mean like with airplanes?"

Charlie gave something between a nod and a shrug. "Mostly. It's all just designs right now, but there's a lot of applications. NASA's even shown some interest in it."

"Yeah? Cool." Amelia said with a friendly smile, before walking off

Charlie nodded. "Yeah," he said quietly to himself, looking uneasily as she walked away. "It is."

***

Charlie couldn't even tell what time of day it was with the bright light shining across his face as he came to once again. He'd already figured out the man had drugged him before, though he still didn't know where he was. The most terrifying moment had probably been the first time he came to on the slab and realized he was naked, but so far the guy hadn't tried anything.

The man hadn't seemed concerned before when Charlie pulled at the plastic restraints keeping him down, or when he first screamed for help. He simply said there was no one around to hear him.

The last time Charlie came to, the man had had a lot to say, but this time he appeared to be silent. Charlie didn't know why, but it made his blood run cold.

Finally, the man picked something up off a nearby table, walked over the slab Charlie was on, and held it up to him. It was a newspaper. The same one the man had shown him before. Charlie squinted in the light until he could read the article on it, the same one the man had shown him before.

"You still think you're brave?" The man finally said.

"Please." Charlie whispered from his raw throat between breaths. "Please, why are you doing this?"

"You still think you're brave?" The man repeated. Not waiting for an answer, he pulled the cigarette from his mouth and pressed it gently against the newspaper until a small flame started. As the fire grew, the man walked over to Charlie, holding it closer to him.

It was only then that Charlie finally noticed the strange smell that had been bothering his nose since he came to this time. The smell that hadn't been there before.

The smell coming from all over his own body.

The man dropped the burning newspaper on Charlie's chest and the flames spread immediately.

Charlie screamed as long as he could.

***

Early morning sunlight crept through the broken windows of the dilapidated warehouse. Detectives Lilly Rush and Scotty Valens looked around the as they walked through, maneuvering around the refuse strewn around. Scotty's nose wrinkled with disgust as his eyes scanned over the various broken beer bottles, used condoms, and even a few discarded t-shirts and a small, broken, refrigerator. "What's an empty building without a few keggers over the years?" He said.

Lilly just rolled her eyes. "Teenagers gotta party somewhere."

"Hey, speaking of parties, join ours." Detective Nick Vera waving them over to a corner where a few other officers were gathered.

"So who found them?" Lilly asked.

"Demolition crew inspecting the site." Vera said. "The owner's doing a stretch for tax evasion and his property got seized. City was finally getting around to leveling this dump when the guys found this." He gestured to a door in the floor painted to match the rest of the area, except for the various burns over it. "Sort of a hidden basement."

Scotty looked it over. "Clever way to hide something in plain sight."

Vera nodded. "Demolition crew almost missed it except for the burn marks over it."

"Which is why I got brought in." The short, dark-haired man walking over to them said.

"Hey, Louie." Lilly said with a smile. "They dragged you out here too?"

Louie Amante shrugged with a slight smile. "Yeah, nobody ever starts a fire someplace nice." His face turned serious as he gestured to the door and the stairs under it. "Anyway, the real action's downstairs."

***

Louie led the detectives down the stairs into a room completely unlike the one above. Even with the lights the police had brought in, the floor and walls were black.

"Somebody's been startin' a lotta fires down here over a long time." Louie said, grimly. "Some going back years, some maybe a few months ago."

"Owner's been locked up since '04." Vera said.

Louie pointed to a hole in the corner of the ceiling, where a trace of light was shining through. "They drilled a hole up into the old incinerator upstairs, giving the smoke somewhere to go. Otherwise they would've asphyxiated down here." He turned to the detectives. "I'll leave the horror show to you guys "

The detectives walked over to the wall just below the hole in the ceiling. A medical examiner was crouching over three charred, blackened corpses, each laid out over a slab, while an older man was standing over her.

"Boss?" Lilly said, after taking a long look at the bodies. "Any I.D. on the bodies?"

The older man, Lieutenant John Stillman, shook his head. "Nothing on them. No trace of clothing." He pointed at each of the remains. "Two male, one female. Accelerant on each of the bodies."

Scotty looked over the bodies. "Serial killer trying to dispose of the remains."

"Not exactly." Frannie Ching, the medical examiner said, with a solemn look on her face, before pointing to the left wrist on one of the bodies. "There's melted plastic over the wrists, ankles, and neck."

"They were tied down." Lilly said uneasily.

"Nobody ties down a dead body." Scotty said. "Unless..."

"They were burned alive." Vera growled.

Frannie nodded and sighed. "Looks that way."

Louie folded his arms and walked closer, still keeping his distance from the bodies. "The accelerant here woulda burned slow at a relatively low temperature."

"So whoever did this didn't want it over too quick. He wanted them to suffer" Lilly said. "The question is what for?"

Scotty crouched down to look at the face of one of the bodies, looking into a pair of darkened eye sockets. "When we find this son of a bitch, we can ask him."

ROLL INTRO