FIRST DEGREE BURN Chapter I

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 NEW HARDCOVER  EDITION from Tenacity Media Books. 

Superman pulled up to the decrepit row house in a Black ’94 Econoline van. The needles crunched on the sidewalk along Avenue C when he got out. It was a piss-numbing, sub zero night down in Alphabet City and at half-past-two in the morning, the streets  were dead. Superman looked around before he slid the van door open. There was enough gasoline inside to take down a city block.

The two red cans looked black in the night scope as Eddie Burke watched him from the roof across the street. He had been tracking the psychopath for months now as he wreaked havoc across the Lower East Side: lighting fires; smashing boilers and breaking water mains. Landlords would hire the fearsome Dominican to clean out their rent controlled buildings and Superman (born Dagoberto Rojas) did it with the efficiency of a surgeon cauterizing a wound. Still, half a dozen people got burned in his fires; among them an elderly woman and three-year-old twins. When told of the death toll, Superman would just cackle through yellow teeth and say “Morte de los bomberos…”

Death to the firefighters who think they can stop me.

This bothered Eddie Burke who had a particular problem with arrogance. And when he transfered from Brooklyn Base to Manhattan where he worked as a “catching” Fire Marshal, he pushed Superman up to the top of his chart.

So now, on this frigid night in December, he lay on his belly as the arsonist hauled the gasoline cans into the vacant tenement.

“Squad 4-8 to 4-1,” Eddie whispered over the three-inch Motorola Handie-Talkie clipped to his turnout coat.

“4-1. You got him Burke?” Supervising Fire Marshal Mike Kivlihan was on Avenue A and Houston St. standing in front of 32 Engine and 103 Truck. There were thirteen firefighters behind him, waiting for the word.

“Yeah,” said Eddie. “And it’s gasoline again, which means a fast in and out.”

“So? What about it?”

“I asked for two blocks. You’re five minutes away.”

“Who gives a shit? The place is unoccupied.” Kivlihan was an nasty little bantam rooster. A short man in a big man’s job.

But Eddie kept pressing.

“A lot of crack heads use the buildings down here.”

“I thought you said the windows were covered with tin.”

“They are.”

“Then it’s empty…”

Kivlihan turned and played to the men behind him.

“Look, this is your party, asshole. I got two pieces of apparatus and we’re on the clock. Now, you gonna do this or not?”

Eddie shook his head. Among the Marshals, Kivlihan was known as an “empty suit.”

A “house” Marshal who’d gone on light duty after a minor injury his third year in an engine company. He’d ass-kissed his way through the ranks ever since.

“Just be there.” Eddie punched out.

He grabbed a Haligan tool and a nylon life line and pushed down off the roof while, below in the shadows, Superman used an eight-inch crowbar to pop open a basement window.

The building had been boarded for months now. The end townhouse in a block of brownstones designed at the turn of the century by McKim, Meade & White. A row of six-story bell epoque buildings that had been granted Landmark Status in 1995. And that was their death sentence.

You see, the law was designed for preservation, but arson investigators like Eddie Burke knew that it was an open invitation to burn.

Landmark buildings could only be renovated along precise lines approved by the HPD – The City’s Department of Housing, Preservation and Development. You couldn’t just do a spray job or slap sheet rock over these babies. They cost ten times as much to bring back to life as a conventional structure, so many landlords, finding themselves with an expensive “old lady” to take care of, simply put out the word for “a torch.”

In this case, no one knew that the landlord had already drawn up the plans for a 20-story tan brick high rise of Section Eight Housing. He’d get an insurance pay out for the burn and Federal Matching Funds to replace the glorious old brownstones that were too expensive to renovate.

And once again a little piece of the city would die. That’s how things ran in New York and after twelve years in a truck company watching Manhattan burn away, Eddie Burke was disgusted.

He could get his revenge with a gun or a bottle, but for now it would happen when he finally put the bracelets on this piece of shit from Santo Domingo.

They called him Superman, in part, because no one could touch him and in part because he’d survived a six story jump into an alley when Eddie had cornered him on the top floor of a tenement. The man just refused to get hurt or get collared and he was always four steps ahead. But tonight Eddie would grab him. Arrest him downstairs in the boiler room as he set up the incendiary device. That way the charge would be Arson One.

The First Alarm “Response” was on standby with Kivlihan just in case Eddie was late or the fire-starter beat him to the match. But Eddie Burke wouldn’t let that happen. And he had the Dominican fuck in the Trigicon sights of his “Smith” when Rojas disappeared in the basement doorway.

Inside, the arsonist worked quickly. He went straight to the boiler room and switched on an overhead bulb dangling from a cord. There was still power in the building, so the landlord could keep the boiler on low and prevent the pipes from freezing.

In the fire investigation that would follow, he would have to maintain that he fully intended to renovate the landmark but that fate or some faulty wiring had intervened.

Superman switched on a hand spotlight and unscrewed the bulb. He screwed a “Y” extension into the socket and replaced the bulb. Then he found an old plastic garbage can and moved it next to the oil storage tank. He hit the side of the tank and smiled.

It was 3/4′s full of No. Four heating fuel, enough of an accelerant to break windows three blocks away when it blew.

Eddie was moving through the alley at the side of the building now. There was a vacant lot next door from an earlier three alarm blaze and he saw a half-dozen rotted out mattresses where the crack addicts would lie on a summer night and blow rock. But not tonight. The temperature was 15 below.

At the back of the building, there was a fire escape with a “pull down” ladder. Eddie reached up with the Haligan tool and yanked it down. Then he climbed up and began making his away along the old rusted fire escape.

At one point it shook, and one of the second floor bolts sheared. The thing rocked.

“Jesus Christ…”

Eddie said it under his breath as he grabbed the rail. Fire escapes were an afterthought on a building like this and they were the last part of the infrastructure that ever got serviced. This one had rusted out years ago and Eddie wasn’t sure if it would take his full weight. So he moved up cautiously to the third floor landing and headed for the roof.

Down in the boiler room now, Superman opened a Glad drawstring trash bag and pushed it into the garbage can, taping the mouth of the open bag around the rim with duct tape. Then he pulled out two white extension cords. He plugged one into the socket and took out a small house timer. The kind people use to try and fool the home invaders when they take a trip. Superman plugged the timer into the first extension cord and then the second cord into the timer.

He stripped the ends off, exposing the wires, then twisted them into a “pig’s tail” and taped the wire so that the exposed end was directly over the open garbage bag in the can.

Eddie was two steps from the top landing of the fire escape when it buckled again. Christ. The thing shook. Eddie fell back a few rungs and hung on. The old wrought iron stairwell made a creaking sound and down in the basement, Superman stopped cold. He looked upstairs, cocking his head like a predatory beast and listened again. He moved his way out from the boiler room and panned the spotlight. A rat darted across the floor and he smiled.
“El raton…”

Outside now, Eddie held his breath and moved up the stairs, touching them like eggshells. The fire escape creeked one more time but he lunged up and grabbed onto the edge of the roof coping and pulled himself over. He hyperventilated, staring up at the World Trade Center to his right. Then he got up and moved to the bulkhead which led to the top floor brownstone landing. He inserted the Haligan tool in the door and was about to pop it, when he saw smoke…

“Mother of Christ.”

Eddie jumped on the two-way.

“4-8 to 4-1. There’s somebody in the building.”

Kivlihan clicked back. “No shit. The fuckin’ torch.”

“No. I mean somebody’s on one of the floors. A civilian.

“That’s bullshit.”

“Hey. I’m on the roof and there’s smoke from a cooking fire coming out of one of the chimneys.”

“Maybe the maggot decided to have a fuckin’ burrito before he blew it.”

“No. I’m goin’ down to see.”

“That’s a negative.” Kivlihan hissed at him so Eddie hit the transmit button.

“Sorry. You’re breakin’ up…” He punched out and popped the door.

Now, down below, the arsonist was certain he heard a noise. He rushed back into the boiler room to finish the job as Eddie made his way down, two steps at a time through the darkened building. Because Rojas was downstairs, it was too risky to use a Mag light.

But seven years with a forcible entry rescue crew had given Eddie an instinct for moving in the dark. Coming in with the First Response on Four Truck when the smoke was so thick you had to crawl across the floor on your hands. Sucking compressed air through a Scott’s bottle with temperature’s hitting 800 degrees, you felt your way through as you searched for bodies. The smoke was so dense that you had to tie a life-line on the first piece of iron inside the door just to pull yourself out.

Now, by instinct, Eddie moved down along the cast iron stairwell, checking each door along the way for a line of light. Then, he smelled it. The smoke he’d seen on the roof. He saw the flicker of light beneath the transom. Eddie felt the door. He turned the nob and inched it open.

Inside, there was a fire smoldering in a rusted 55 gallon drum. Someone had started it with the wood from a shipping pallet. Across the mouth of the barrel there was a piece of chicken on a crude spit that was burned to a crisp. The smoke was traveling up through the ducts of the old forced-air heating system. Eddie flicked on a penlight flash and shined it across the room.

“Oh Jesus…”

In the opposite corner he saw a woman in her early 20′s. Black, lying on her side, her eyes wide, tongue out… The crack pipe was on the floor beside her. An overdose. Eddie pushed in and rushed over to her. He felt for a pulse.

“Fuck” he pulled his hands away. The body was stone cold and stiff as a board. He was about to take off for the basement, when he saw something move under a ratty old blanket. He grabbed the butt-end of the Haligan tool, figuring it for a rat. Then he pulled the blanket away to smash it and…

“Holy Christ…”

It was an infant, lying in “feety” pajamas and turning blue from the cold.

He pushed the two-way and whispered.
“Burke to 4-1. There’s one DOA and one living… A baby. Can’t be more than three months.”

“Leave it and get down to the basement. I’ll have Rescue there in five minutes.”

“Christ Kivie, no. If it blows…”

“He won’t risk it. He’s got to get out first.”

“But this kid’s gonna freeze to dea…”

Kivie stopped him.

“That is a fucking order, Mister. Now get down there.”

Eddie hesitated. The tiny baby was trembling now. He felt like it could die any second in his arms. Then he looked down below where the target was and…

“Fuck it.”

He ripped open his Nomex turnout coat and shoved the baby inside. Then he pushed out, down toward the first floor landing.

Now in the basement, Superman moved toward the boiler. He kneeled down and looked inside at the blue flame from the pilot light. He took a hammer and came down on the thermostat housing. Bang. The light went out. He didn’t want any fucking fire burning when the gasoline vapors started to come up. Next, he opened the first can of gas and poured it into the bag.

When the garbage can was half full, he poured in the second 25 gallon can. Then he plugged in the timer and checked his watch. It was 2:32 a.m. He set the timer for 2:40. Eight minutes. Plenty of time to get out. Finally, he plugged in the second extension cord. Now, as the gasoline fumes began to fill the room, he’d created a circuit.

The highly flammable vapors would rise up from the can. When the timer hit 2:40 a.m. it would trip and complete the circuit, causing a short. A spark would flash along the twisted wire pig-tail above the can.

This would blow the gasoline and set off the storage tank full of heating fuel. Superman would be having a Bustello at a social club full of witnesses six blocks away and he’d laugh through his yellow teeth when the dominos fell on the table nearby from the shock of the blast.

He poured a few extra ounces of gasoline in a line from the can to the tank as a “trailer” and then grabbed his light. He started to exit the basement when just then:

Kajack…

He heard the sound of a 9 mm round going into the pipe of a Smith & Wesson on the floor above him.

Superman stopped in his tracks. He rans his odds and thought fast. If the bomberos were on him he would give them a little regalo for when they walked in. Take the fucking skin off their faces. So he ran back into the boiler room, shined the light on the timer and shortened the blast time to 2:36.

Less than four minutes away and just enough time for him to climb out through the basement window.

Now, up above, Eddie was moving down the pitch black stairwell. He was on the second floor landing about to step down, when he stopped. Instinct held him back. Instinct and the draft he felt at the landing’s edge. He reached out for the railing and there was nothing. The baby inside his jacket was beginning to cry now. It was just warm enough to feel pain. And as Eddie switched on the penlight flash, he rocked back.

“Fuck me…”

He  holstered the gun and looked down. Scavengers had been into the building. They’d taken out the first floor wrought-iron stairwell for scrap. Now there was a fifteen foot drop to the first floor and Eddie had an infant in his coat.

He hit the two-way.

“Move in…”

Kivlihan jumped on the radio. “You got him?”

“Not exactly. But this kid here’s about to die. Send EMS. Thermal blanket. The full loadout.”

Kivlihan almost exploded. “Where the fuck’s Rojas?”

“I don’t know, but the fire escape’s gone and I’m a little short of a first floor landing here.”

He looked down at the open drop to the basement when just then, through a hole in the floor where the scavengers had hacked away at the stairwell, he saw a light flash.

Superman.

Eddie dropped the lifeline from over his shoulder and snapped it onto the second floor railing with a carabiner. He held his right arm around the baby and slid down the line with his left…. boom… to the first floor.

Superman was just at the basement window when he heard the noise. He ducked back into the shadows as Eddie drew the Smith and moved down the stairs to the basement. Then he stopped and smelled it. The gasoline.

Ten feet away in the boiler room, he could hear the the timer. Click, click, click. He looked around left, then right searching through the dark with eyes that few other men had. That’s when he saw it. The flash of silver as Rojas pulled out a narrow blade.

Eddie pointed the Smith at the shadow just below the window and cocked it.

“That’s it Rojas. Come out where I can fuckin’ see you.

From the dark he heard. “Fuck you mang and fuck your mother.”
Eddie turned toward the timer which was just clicking past 2:34 with less than two minutes to go.

“You shoot me this whole fuckin’ place gonna blow,” said the arsonist.

“That’s one way to end your career,” said Eddie. “Now get the fuck out here.”

Click, click click.

“Two-thirty-four mang. It’s set to blow in two minutes.”

Just then, from outside, they heard the sirens. Now Superman had to make a decision. He could take his chances up the back stairs with a piece-of-cake jump from the first floor landing or run into half a dozen six-foot Irishmen with turnout gear and fire axes coming in the front door. It wasn’t even a choice.

“Fuck you mang…”

And with that he darted out through the dark toward the back of the basement.

In a second, Eddie was after him, drawing the baby to his chest as he chased the Dominican psychopath down along the basement hallway toward the back. Superman was almost at the foot of the stairwell when, suddenly… Eddie lunged forward and threw out the Halligan tool. The ax-like blade spun head over head and knocked the arsonist down. Eddie ran up to him, about to pull out the cuffs, when, the baby cried. Rojas smiled like a pit viper. He knew that Eddie was vulnerble, so he slashed out with the knife.

“Christ,” Eddie went down in agony.

Rojas had cut a six-inch slice across his thigh.

“Fuck you Maricon,” said Superman. “You coulda had me but you stopped for some fuckin’ kid that was dead before it was fuckin’ born. You deserve to blow…”

And with that, he jammed the knife into Eddie’s thigh, kicking past him and taking off up the stairs.

Eddie was almost in shock now from the pain. The narrow bladed stiletto was buried up to the hilt. But the baby was crying and the Fire Marshal knew that there wasn’t much time.

He looked at the luminous dial on his black plastic Casio. 2:35 a.m. Less than a minute to go. With all the strength that he had, Eddie pulled himself up by the stairwell railing. The little baby was bawling now as Eddie backed up the stairs, one at a time. Blood was pouring from the knife wound and across the basement, the timer clicked away.

Finally, Eddie got to the first floor landing. He pushed to a hallway window and, with his good leg, kicked away at the tin.

A flap opened in the corner of the window and he looked down. It was twenty feet to the pile of rubble in the lot next store where he’d come in.

The baby was starting to convulse now and Eddie wasn’t sure if it would survive the fall. He couldn’t even feel his leg. The hilt of the stiletto was buried down to the bone. He checked his watch – thirty seconds – and kicked out at the rest of the tin.

A rescue unit screeched into the lot next door and a four man FAST (Firefighter Assist) team jumped off. They shined their lights up at the building as Eddie climbed onto the window ledge. He looked down at the mattresses in the lot below and yelled.

“Get back. It’s about to bl…

And with that, the timer clicked. The circuit was made. The line shorted out. The sparks flashed and the gas fumes ignited, blowing Eddie Burke, arms across his chest to swaddle the infant, out the window and down twenty feet to the mattresses as The Fast Team rocked back from the blast and the landmark brownstone erupted in flames…

That’s all Eddie remembered. The sight of the FAST truck and their lights and then blackness… Until he woke up ten minutes later on a gurney. An EMS paramedic leaned in over him and flicked on a flash light to check his vitals.

Eddie coughed up some blood and wheezed out, “The kid..?”

The paramedic shook his head.

“It was gone before the thing ever lit.”

“What was it?” said Eddie. “A boy or a girl?”

“Little girl. Sorry Ed…”

Eddie started to get up, but then felt the shooting pain in his thigh. Just then, Bobby Vasquez pushed in smiling. Vasquez had worked with Eddie back in Four Truck. He’d broken his back in a three alarm and was now on “light duty.” The House Watch who manned The Board at Manhattan Base.

Bobby held up an evidence bag with Superman’s pearl handled stiletto. “Right down to the fuckin’ femur Burke. This is definitely gonna affect your golf game.”

“I don’t play golf.”

“That’s good, cause you sure as shit can’t start now.”

A half dozen firefighters nearby laughed. Vasquez moved over and patted Eddie on the back.

“The old man’d be proud.”

For some reason Eddie nodded bitterly, when just then, Kivlihan, the rat-faced Executive Officer, rushed up to him.

“Goddamn you Burke. There’s a chain of command here.”

Eddie pushed himself up on the gurney as Vasquez turned to Kivlihan. “Hey Kivie. Lighten up for Crissakes. He oughta get the Bennett Medal for this.”

“What he’s gonna get is a goddamn writeup with IAD.” Kivlihan looked across at the burnt-out hulk. “Landmark building. Six alarms. Half the fuckin’ block almost blew.”

“So, what was he gonna do? There was a kid in there.”

“Yeah, a dead kid.”

Eddie pushed himself up on his good leg. He gritted his teeth from the pain. The morphine was just kicking in.

“You know somethin’ Kivie?”

“What’s that?”

“I don’t like you…”

And with that, Eddie hauled back with his left and broke Kivie’s jaw. The Supervisor went down like a sack of shit as Eddie staggered and dropped back on the gurney.

“Jesus Christ,” said one of the Probationary firefighters, just pushing in to see. “What the hell was that?”

Vasquez looked down at Eddie and shook his head smiling.

“That, my friend, was a goddamn left cross.”

The Probie smiled.

The EMS guy strapped Eddie onto the gurney and nodded to his partner to wheel him off. As they moved past Kivlihan, the partner looked down.

“What about him?”

Kivlihan was on the ground now in agony. He was holding his jaw shut with his hands.
The paramedic smiled. “This fuck can wait…”

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