Watch the World Burn
The day Matthew Smith died was the day Carter McKellan's world exploded. Explode was not a word Carter used lightly. He was a gifted graduate student in the Chemistry department of Gotham University, touted far and near as one of the most accomplished experimental chemists in the city (or, as Matthew liked to brag, the world). Matthew had a term for Carter's skill: pyronius, pyrotechnic genius. Carter could coax fire out of anything. Until the fire flared inside him.
At first, there had been nothing. There had been a knock at the door, and two grim-faced policemen offering empty words like, "heartfelt sympathy" and "tragic occurrence." They'd been afraid to say suicide, but Carter heard it as clearly as though he was reading their minds. It didn't make sense, he had protested. Matthew is happy. Is. Is. Present tense. The shorter cop had thrust a crumpled piece of paper into Carter's numb hand. Apparently it had been found on the body. It was addressed to him. The cops asked about next of kin, and Carter answered truthfully: Matthew had no family, only Carter. And I only have Matt, he added silently. The cops apologized again, and slunk guiltily away, back to their normal lives, leaving a gaping hole in Carter's. It had taken 24 hours to the minute for the fire to kindle in the cold grate of his heart. He had closed the door and collapsed onto their-his- sagging old couch, the letter clenched in his hand. He didn't read it. He didn't want to know Matt's reasons. He wanted to curl up and close his eyes and pretend that Matthew would walk through the door at any moment, grinning, asking if he needed a fire extinguisher.
Carter didn't remember falling asleep, only waking up to a loud thump! "Matty, what was that?" he asked drowsily. But of course, there was no answer, only a drunken moan from above-the Upstairs Neighbor. Because Matty was gone. Gone gone Matt Matt gone Matt gone Matt Matt Matt Matt. The words trudged around and around his head, settling into a sluggish, hopeless dirge, running like a broken record. The note was still clenched in his hand, creased and damp. Carter read the last line:
All my love, now and forever,
Carter traced the signature, the familiar swoop of the M, the dash through both t's which curved slightly upward at the end. Except it didn't curve up. It curved down. Of course it did. Matt was probably feeling pretty fucking down when he wrote the note. Or maybe…maybe he hadn't written the note at all.
Motivation is a funny thing. Fueled by righteous anger, Carter found himself alighting upon evidence he never would have considered, drawing conclusions he never imagined he'd draw, finding connections, alternatives, absolutes. Answers. Before he had time to stop for air, he knew what had happened to Matt, as though Matt himself were guiding him. He knew he was ready to face the killer. He was ready to face Lau.
Even as he walked into the dingy, abandoned warehouse and found himself surrounded by a dozen men carrying automatic weapons, while he was armed only with a little .38 pistol, Carter did not entertain the notion of defeat. He announced himself proudly and accused Lau, right there in front of everyone, God as his witness.
The little Asian man had not reacted, as Carter had imagined countless times that he would, with fear. He raised his eyebrows, a small motion which nevertheless carried impressive weight, as a second later two very strong hands clamped onto Carter's upper arms, squeezing painfully and forcing him to his knees.
"You're Carter," said Lau, looking down at him. "Matthew talked about you. He said you're too..." he closed his eyes, "What is the word? Glum. I think we ought to change that." He snapped his fingers and one of the thugs stepped forward and handed him a small straight razor.
"Be happy, Carter," Lau continued, leaning down so his face was level with Carter's. "Matthew is free now." He smirked a little, and Carter felt icy, paralyzing terror wrap iron tendrils around his heart, squeezing a million times harder than the thugs holding his arms. "Free from your oppression."
Anger and fear collided inside him and he tried to struggle to his feet, away from the knife, which glinted cruelly in the weak light, but his captors were too strong. With slow, terrifying precision, Lau slid the razor into Carter's mouth. "Let us see if you squeal like Matthew did…"
The scarring was permanent, the doctor said, apologizing profusely, bearing disturbing resemblance to the police who had started it all. He had suggested make-up, and offered to refer Carter to a cosmetic specialist at Gotham General. Carter had refused. The scars were a reminder of his mistake. They were a reminder of the sheer immaterial of anger. Anger did nothing.
That was the real point at which fire completely consumed Carter McKellan's life. He wanted the flames. He needed definable pain. He would laugh when he felt it, high-pitched and maniacal, relishing the madness. His reflection would grin at him, and he would grin back. Because it was funny, he realized now. Hysterically funny. And he loved to laugh.
Lau had been ridiculously easy to find. At this point, he was connected to every mobster in Gotham. Amusingly easy.
He restrained his laughter as he entered the grey concrete "group therapy" room, leaving the two guards bleeding out on the floor next to the metal detector. He'd already heard Lau's voice, but it was easy to control the rage which bubbled up inside him. He had a more powerful weapon now.
"And I thought my jokes were bad." He grinned evilly at the television screen, savoring the flicker of realization, and then the fear, even when he was already an ocean away. He felt a sudden stab of -sadness?- that Lau was not here in the room to see his handiwork up close.
While he was there, he took care of the other matter of business, twisting the mobsters around his pinky with ease. The conversation looped along, chasing its tail, slipping back to Lau, the television. He could taste the words which had scalded the inside of his brain since the day in the warehouse, and felt sick at the mere idea that Batman might beat him to the Chinese man.
"I know the squealers when I see them, and…" he imagined Lau screaming, screaming like Matt had screamed, like he had screamed. And it was beautiful.
It wouldn't be neat or orderly. Chaos was the way to live. Chaos and fire. The world had to burn, and he would get to watch.