The Gentle Embrace of Death

Louie Marozzi wasn’t part of anyone’s gang.

It’s true that Al Capone, Dion O’Banion, and Bugs Malone all asked him, at one time or the other, to drive trucks for them. But he turned them all down. He wanted to stay independent…no matter the cost.

Not only was Louie an exceptional driver, he was a giant of a man. At six-feet, seven-inches, and 340 pounds, he was a specimen to behold. People thought Big Louie, as many called him, wasn’t too bright.

He seldom spoke and when he did he stumbled over words, going from Italian to American in the same sentence. His appearance, with a dark unibrow and jutting forehead, probably furthered the narrative about his low intelligence.

He was slow to anger. He didn’t drink alcohol, or smoke cigarettes. The few friends he had were homeless, and lived on the streets of Chicago. His daily challenge was to stay out of the way of warring gangs.

Louie saw plenty of guys get gunned down in a hail of bullets from a passing car. The gangsters spent as much time killing each other as they did innocent victims. Dead men turned up all the time.

It was that environment that gave Louie his chance to kill people without getting caught. He wasn’t a violent killer, and never used a gun. He preferred to put his victims to sleep in his firm, yet strangely gentle, chokehold.

Unlike some psychopaths, Louie knew it was wrong to kill people. He justified his hobby by killing what he judged were bad men. He tried to keep the murders down to just a couple a week.

With the rate of weekly murders in the streets of Chicago in 1931, two more a week were easily lost in the shifting statistics.

In Louie’s mind he was doing his criminal victims a favor. They probably would have been violently killed by someone else. He was nice enough to make their passing painless and not traumatic.

Even in that violent time and city, there were whispered rumors of a serial strangler stalking the streets. The police, aware of the rumors – and the circumstances involving a string of choking victims – kept their eyes open for a suspect.

One day his friend Leo emerged from the streets, and hunted him down.

“I need your help Louie,” the shriveled old man pleaded.

“Sure Leo.

“A couple of thugs in Bugs Moran’s gang took Angelo this morning! They beat him up and dragged him into one of those big black cars and took off!”

“Why they do that?” Louie asked.

I don’t know for sure, but I think it’s about a briefcase he found in an alley, and they were looking for it.

“You sure Bug’s boy’s did it?”

“Yeah…I happen to know a couple of them. Ran a few errands for ’em.

“I’ll see what I can do come amico.”

As Louie walked back to where his truck was parked, he noticed a couple of thugs loitering around it. The first thing that went through his mind was Angelo convinced them he had the briefcase, in order to stay alive.

The normally calm and composed Louie was slowly melting away, as he watched them from the window of a shop he went inside of. He didn’t like being threatened. He looked at both men closely, memorizing their faces.

There was a rear exit in the shop and Louie took it out to the alley. He knew where the Moran mobsters hung out. There was one location in particular, a house, that he suspected they’d taken Angelo too.

It was a couple of miles away, but that didn’t bother him. He liked a good brisk walk. It helped calm him down. He didn’t want to shed blood. He just wanted to gently put them to sleep in his powerful arms.

He was right about the house. It was on a big lot and fenced in, but Louie had no trouble getting over the fence. As he got closer he heard a muffled scream. Louie sat down and waited for hours until the moon climbed to the top of the sky, before overpowering the sleeping guard on the front porch.

He went through the front door, surprisingly quiet for a man of his size. He took care of the two thugs sleeping in the living room. He went to the cellar door and opened it. He softly descended the stairs.

Another guard was asleep on a chair. Louie wished him sweet dreams and sent him to eternity. Angelo was a bloody pulp. His hands were tied behind him with twine, and he was unconscious.

Louie approached his body on the floor. He was laying sideways. He checked for a pulse and was surprised to find a weak one. He probably wasn’t going to make it from the looks of his smashed skull.

Louie sent him gently into the night.

No one knew what happened at the Bugs Moran gang’s house, because it was engulfed in flames set by Louie that night.

Locals said Moran’s gang never bothered Louie again. Some say it was because Al Capone and his thugs took a lot of Bug’s time just trying to survive.

Other’s say that Louie Marozzi was the most feared and famous killer in Chicago… that the public never heard about.

As It Stands, this tale is a chapter out of the urban lore from Chicago’s “gangster days.”

Eyes of Love

Stanley Meltzer fell in love with a new waitresses eyes when he went to Woolworth’s one morning.

While sipping his strong black coffee, he couldn’t help but notice how pretty she was. That she had an outgoing personality was obvious, as he watched her take time to chat with every customer. Her name badge said, “Lisa.”

Lisa’s smile was sweet and innocent. Her most striking feature was her long brilliant red hair which cascaded down her shoulders like a crimson waterfall, until it met her thin waist and stopped. Her voice was pitch-perfect and mesmerized Stanley as she took his order.

Stanley was an accountant for Al Capone, the notorious crime lord who ruled Chicago after prohibition became law on January 17th, 1920.

Stanley was a mousey little man who wore a brown trench coat throughout the year. His diminutive five-foot presence often went unnoticed in public settings. A bachelor, he lived alone in a small apartment on south Madison Avenue. He paid a maid to come in once a week and clean it.

Stanley’s routine involved going to Woolworth’s every morning to get coffee and a donut. After the new waitress was hired, he started ordering breakfast just so he could talk to her longer. He got lost watching her eyes and movements.

He spent hours wishing he had the guts to ask her out. But he was too timid. He got tongue-tied around women, which wasn’t exactly an endearing trait to woo them with.

When Stanley was young, his mother often told him eyes were the gateway to a person’s soul. For the first time he understood what she meant. The waitresses eyes told volumes when she laughed at a customer’s joke.

Her green eyes twinkled merrily as she encouraged others to laugh. Innocence peeked out from the corners like a shy child. They were the eyes of a saint, or movie star. He wasn’t sure which.

Stanley had been around the block long enough to know that eyes can lie. They can deceive you, like Big Al’s dark eyes. They appear to be smiling, even when he shoots someone. Anger also illuminates Big Al’s eyes like a jungle cat’s. He’d seen that more times than he cared to remember.

It was important to be able to read eyes. Stanley, in his lonely existence, spent a lot of time reading other people’s eyes. When he finished a financial report, one of Big Al’s goons would come get it, and deliver it to his boss.

He’d look at the goon’s eyes, and would see a dangerous blankness in them. Like he didn’t have a soul. He suspected that he didn’t, because he killed people on a mobster’s orders.

One morning while Stanley was chewing on a piece of bacon, two tough-looking customers came to the counter and sat down near him. Their eyes were ugly with suspicion and hate, as each gruffly ordered a coffee.

Big Al had a lot of enemies. Instinctively, he knew these two new guys on the block were enemies of Big Al. This was his territory, and when new thugs came into the neighborhood trouble always followed.

His hand shook slightly as he lifted his cup and took a sip of coffee. The two thugs were laughing and boasting about their work when two of Big Al’s men entered with Tommy Guns!

Just before they opened fire, Stanley leaped over the counter and covered Lisa’s body with his own! A second later their machine guns were drilling holes into the two thugs bodies, and haphazardly tracking the rest of the counter.

Stanley felt both bullets hit him in the back!

He collapsed to the ground with Lisa beneath him. His blood soaked her, as the machine guns kept stitching the counter. Miraculously, three other customers who were at the counter weren’t even wounded, as they plunged to the floor to escape the hot lead.

Big Al’s boys calmly walked out, leaving chaos behind them. The two thugs bodies were riddled with bullet holes. The only other person shot was Stanley. He was barely alive when the ambulance crew got there and took him to the hospital.

Stanley heard voices. He tried to open his eyes, but they felt heavy. A doctor was talking with a nurse at the end of his bed. He heard snatches of conversation; “The next 24-hours will tell…has anyone contacted his family?..Try to keep him comfortable…”

When he woke the next day the nurse called his doctor in. He came in and checked his bandages, instructing the nurse to change them when he was finished.

“Mr. Meltzer,” the doctor said, “you’re a lucky man. One of the bullets that struck you almost hit your heart. It’s going to be a while before you recover. We weren’t able to contact any of your family members. You do have a visitor. She says she’s your girlfriend.”

Stanley struggled to sit up in his excitement. “My girlfriend!” he said, like a parrot repeating a phrase.

“Easy now…you can’t move that fast yet. Do you want me to send her in?”

“Please! Yes, I’d love to see her.

When Lisa walked into the room she didn’t hesitate, and went straight to his bed and kissed him on the mouth.

“Thank you, Stanley” she said, with love in her eyes.

As It Stands, love can be sudden, and still last forever.

 

The Power Of Love

Love recoiled when Alex was born. 

He never got to suckle at his mother’s warm breast, because she left him with the Catholic Church, who named him Alexander, after the saint St. Alexander of Jerusalem.

He was born on March 1st, 1951, at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway, Ireland. The overcrowded facility offered shelter to orphans, unwed mothers, and their children.

Times were hard for many Irish. There were more than a dozen other places like Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home throughout the land. The majority of children who died at these homes were buried on site, in unmarked graves. It was one of many secrets kept by the nuns (and their superiors) who ran the homes.

Growing up, Alex barely fought off starvation, like his peers. The weaker ones died and disappeared. The children heard the nuns and priests talk of love – Agape love, and other aspects of love – but couldn’t picture what love looked like.

The nuns never smiled, and were perpetually angry about something. Even the priests who came to bless the children at certain times of the year, frowned while preaching. The constant struggle to find food – between meals of mush with mystery meat – caused the children to be wary of one another.

As soon as a child was five-years-old, they were put to work. They worked at menial tasks inside, and outside in the fields until darkness fell. There were no chubby children there. Even the dominant ones – who managed to scavenger food better than the others – were thin and sickly looking.

One day, just after his twelfth birthday, Alex ran away.

He was hardened by the way he was raised, and willing to take his chances anywhere else, but the home he grew up in. What little food he brought with him, wrapped up in an extra shirt, only lasted two days before his stomach was growling with hunger.

He walked along the main road, after sticking to the woods, on the third day. A car would pass now and then, but no one seemed interested in a young boy. It was a rural area and travelers probably thought he lived nearby.

If he wasn’t so thirsty, his water ran out with his food, he might have been impressed with the endless green rolling hills ahead of him. It was big world, and he was just getting a taste of it.

Exhausted, Alex sat down on the side of the road. It was getting dark and he was weak from thirst and hunger. After a while, he fell asleep on the grass.

When he woke up the next morning, he was in a house on someone’s couch! A middle-aged man with black hair and beard, was sitting in a chair watching him.

“How is it that yer out, and ’bout on yer own?” he asked him.

“Please sir! Don’t take me back!” Alex cried out.

“Easy lad…no need to talk ’bout that okay? I din’t care what yer story be. It’s yer plans from here, that interests me.

Alex looked into the man’s eyes. They were dark brown with hints of gold. A deep scar stretched across his right cheek. He had a broken nose. His expression was neutral.

“I need a place to live,” he said, with fear dancing in his eyes.

“I see, lad. I’ll let you live with me, but ther be rules ye must follow.”

Relief poured through Alex’s body as he agreed to the mystery man’s request.

“Sir…what shall I call you?

“Call me Da,” he said, standing up.

The man looked at the skinny boy nervously tapping his fingers on his knee and smiled. This naive boy would fit very nicely into his future plans.

“Are ye hungry lad?”

“Yes sir…er Da!

“Well then boy…I’ve laid out some food for ya in the kitchen. Help yerself.”

As Alex bit into an apple he thought about how nice the man’s face got when he smiled. Was this love?,” he wondered as he took another bite.

Da, aka Seamus Brennen, was a lifelong thief. He made his living stealing from rural farms and homes far from the big city police. His old assistant was caught by the police six months ago and he’d been looking for a replacement since.

Finding Alex was a God send – even through Seamus didn’t believe in God. He was still young enough to train him in the tools of the trade. It was the devotion in Alex’s eyes that assured him he made the right pick.

The key to Alex’s attention was praising him as he learned how to pick locks and where to look for money in most homes. Their partnership flourished for seven years as they moved from one rural area to another, always a few steps ahead of the local police.

Alex was nearly a man now and like a son to Seamus. His wide shoulders and slender waist made him look like a body-builder. He was also taller than Seamus, with wild blond hair and hints of a beard.

His loyalty, and love, were always there. He never had trouble with his conscience, despite his religious upbringing.

One day, as Seamus took a nap in the car under the shade of a tree, Alex went for a walk. Hours later he came upon a young woman milking a cow in a field. He could see a barn not too far away, but no other people.

Like most young men of his age, Alex was curious and also getting funny feelings when around women. He watched her for a few minutes before slowly approaching. She was beautiful! Her long golden hair fell in ringlets as he stared in awe.

He thought, “This is what a princess looks like.” 

Suddenly she turned around and looked at him…and smiled. His heart did an Irish jig and he attempted to smile back. When he got closer, she was still smiling and asked him what his name was?

He blurted out his name, as his cheeks grew red with embarrassment, “Alex…and yours?

She picked up the milking pail and asked him if he’d like a drink of water?

“Oh, aye…” he stammered awkwardly.

“My name is Sarah. Follow me…”

He followed a few steps behind, admiring her youthful body in the plain white dress she was wearing. He felt a giddiness like nothing else before. She was singing an old shepherd’s song as they came to the barn.

She showed him a bench to sit on and went and pumped water from the well, after taking the milk into the house. When she returned with a full tin-cup of water he was trying to compose himself. He had zero experience with women. Da saw to that.

They sat and talked twenty minutes before someone called Sarah from within the house. He felt an electricity, but being a virgin he wasn’t sure what to do or say. Before she went into the house she asked him to come back tonight, and meet her here by the barn.

Their eyes locked for another moment – she smiled sweetly – then hurried off into the house.

When she got inside she went up to her father who was standing near the window looking out. Two of their neighbors were sitting by the cold fireplace with shotguns across their laps.

“Just one,” she reported. “The other one must be near by.”

The men discussed how they’d ambush at least one of the thieves who had been haunting several counties for nearly a decade. They’d catch them in the act if the damn police couldn’t!

When Seamus woke up Alex was sitting at the base of the tree humming a tune. He looked guiltily over when he saw Seamus was watching him. The smile left his face.

“Did ye take a good nap then lad?”

“Aye.”

‘Tis a good thing. We ha work to do tonight,” he smiled and opened the car door.

Alex got in. They drove down the road for a mile, before Seamus pulled off the road and into a grove of trees.

“Will we stay in the county tonight?” Alex anxiously asked.

“Aye! Our targit for tonight is nearby,” he said, getting out of the car. They snacked on chunks of stale bread and waited for nightfall.

Alex followed Seamus. There was only a sliver of a moon peeking out from the dark clouds. When they came to a familiar barn Alex froze. This was where Sarah lived. There was the bench they sat on.

Seamus picked up on his apparent confusion and concern.

“What’s wrong lad” he whispered.

A war was going on in Alex’s head. Was it love at first sight with Sarah? He knew Da loved him. Hadn’t he taken care of him all of these years? But she made his heart leap with her golden hair and luscious lips! Her eyes promised heaven if he returned that night.

“Let’s leave…” he nervously whispered back.

“Say what…?”

Then Seamus saw movement on the side of the house. Men with guns!

Without saying another word, he followed Alex who was now on the ground and crawling in the opposite direction towards their car. They could hear angry voices in the night as they furiously crawled for their lives.

It wasn’t until they got back in the car, and were miles down the road, before Seamus found his voice, “Thanks lad! How did ye know?”

When Alex told Seamus about his visit to the farm while he was taking a nap, a single tear slipped out of one of Seamus’s eyes. This kid he adopted for a life of crime loved him enough to admit what he did, and then saved them both from a certain ambush and possibly death.

“Ye know Alex,” Seamus said the next day, “I know some pretty lassies that would love to meet a lad like you!”

Alex blushed. “Thanks Da,” he said with all of his heart.

As It Stands, love doesn’t always come perfectly packaged, but can be counted on to do the right thing.

The Handyman Cometh

(Listen to Otis Jiry, master storyteller, narrate this story)

Albert was born without the ability to speak. As if to make up for his loss, he was a genius when it came to fixing things from a very early age.

By reverse engineering everything within his reach, by age five, he learned how things worked, and never forgot. He enjoyed building gadgets and testing scientific theories, unlike most of the other 10-year olds on his block in 1977.

He was called a bookworm long before bullies learned to call kids like him a nerd. He was taller than most of his peers, and awkwardly thin. Despite his height advantage (or maybe because of it) he was clumsy, and did horribly at sports like basketball.

As if his intelligence and size didn’t already isolate him in school, being mute was the spark that got him teased since his first day of school. Kids can be cruel when someone isn’t the same as they are.

The one thing kids didn’t call him was dummy. He was too smart for that slam. Most secretly envied his ability to fix things. The boy handyman could fix go-carts, fans, and electric toasters.

When his 10th birthday came along, his mom and dad took him to Sears and said he could pick out any toy he wanted. When Albert saw the Atari VCS with nine-games titles available at launch, he fell in love with it.

His parents, true to their word, bought it for him and his love affair for computers was born. He instinctively knew that the Atari VCS was the tip of the iceberg.

In the following years he kept up with technological advances while going through high school, and eventually to a full ride scholarship at M.I.T.

Upon graduation with honors, Albert was offered a juicy job in the government helping to build a robust, fault-tolerant communication with computer networks. He was instrumental in building a primary precursor network, the ARPANET, which served as a backbone for interconnection of regional academic and military networks in the 1980s.

He was still with the government in the 1990s and made his contributions known again in the development of the World Wide Web, or Internet, as it became commonly called. Throughout his successful career he stayed a loner. He didn’t have any old high school friends.

Just the opposite.

He considered most of the kids in high school his enemies.

Their taunts over the years scarred Albert deeper than anyone, including his parents, suspected. The mild-mannered bookworm morphed into a mild-mannered nerd with a grudge, and became further isolated from his peers and the rest of the world.

He was a computer programmer, software developer, and troubleshooter. His colleagues respected him, but were not comfortable around him. He was the department’s all around handyman. But, to some of the women he seemed creepy, quietly walking around the office and lab staring at people.

Then one day his well-ordered life was shattered! His parents were killed in an auto accident! He was so distraught that he quit his job without notice. He went into a deep depression and left Washington D.C. and moved back into their house in Azusa, California.

As his days wilted into months he slowly began constructing a super computer. One like the world had never seen before. He designed it to surf flawlessly through the internet unobserved.

He discovered the dark web where youthful hackers were comparing techniques to access other people’s computers. He found arsonists, perverts, socialists, neo-Nazis, fascists, religious extremists, conspiracy nuts, and serial killers.

It was the wild, wild, west and Albert felt comfortable viewing what the dregs of humanity had to say to one another. There were a lot of angry people out there…like him.

The denizens of the dark web were anonymous or used fake names to protect themselves. Albert was soon logging in as The Handyman. He asked questions that no sane person would answer. His new found friends weren’t afraid to express their feelings, or to share their dark deeds.

One afternoon he went through his high school year books with revenge on his mind. It was a long time coming, but that was okay. He looked them up on social platforms and hacked their computers.

He started with the six worst offenders from his freshman year to his senior year. Five boys and one girl. He trolled them with death threats for months. He didn’t fear that someone would discover him. He was too good for that.

It amused him that he could toy with them, but he felt like there had to be more. It was ridiculously simple for him to track down where they all lived. It was also easy, and fun, building the bombs he was going to kill them with.

He was a fan of trip wires and set up a trap for each one of them in their homes. When all six bombs went off as planned, he found himself bragging on the dark web. Admirers asked questions like where did he set the traps, and his choice of explosives?

The police quickly realized they had a serial killer on their hands, despite differences in each one of the bombs their forensic team researched.

The sense of power Albert felt was indescribable. “The Handyman cometh...”he boasted on the dark web. Then he went back to the yearbooks and looked for more victims!

As It Stands, beware the loners.

He Who Laughs Last…

When Felix achieved his lifelong ambition to be a clown with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, he felt it was time to get married. He was 30-years-old, and had spent the last nine years training to be a classic clown.

The year was 1959, and the famous circus was wintering in Venice, Florida. The owners, John Ringling North and Arthur Concello, had moved the circus from tents to indoor shows a few years ago.

Felix was a thrifty bachelor who saved his money. He dated the same woman, Laura, for two years, and he was very much in love with her. She said she was in love with him and wanted to have his babies.

It was a small, but nice wedding, with mainly family members from both sides attending. Afterwards, they said goodbye to New Jersey, and moved into a one-bedroom house they bought in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

It was more of an investment than a place where they stayed, because the circus was always touring the country. The circus arrived in every city in a precise order. The first train consisted of 22 cars loaded with tents and the workers to set them up.

The second train to arrive was even longer, with 28 cars holding canvas-men, ushers, and sideshow workers. The performers always arrived last in 19 sleeping cars. Felix and Laura had their names written on the wall above their sleeping space in the seventh car.

Felix became a beloved clown who appealed to children and parents alike.

He pushed poodles around in a baby carriage, rode a tiny bicycle, wore a squirting flower that he used on everyone, did acrobatic tricks, juggled everything from bowling pins to toasters, and interacted with the other clowns in funny skits.

One of the secrets of his success was that he was always working on his acts and thinking up new ones. Some days went by when Laura only saw him at bedtime. When they stayed in a city they sometimes got a hotel room for more privacy.

Other performers and their spouses (if they had one) did the same thing if they could afford to. Those who couldn’t afford to, lived in the sleeper cars and tents set up outside near the train.

It was late into their second touring season when Laura started having roving eyes. One of the acrobats, Luigi, considered himself a ladies man and quickly picked up on Laura’s friendly vibes.

It wasn’t long before the two were involved in an affair. Both took every opportunity to be together. She was married, and he wasn’t. They managed to hide their affair for several months before Felix found out.

His first reaction was to confront her about her adultery and ask why?

But as he thought about it the need for revenge grew stronger. Ever since he heard those two acrobats talking about their brother Luigi making time with one of the clowns wives, a hardness settled over his heart.

For the first time in his life he didn’t want to be laughed at.

He didn’t want to hear the gossip that was surely circulating throughout the circus. People were laughing at him because he was a cuckhold. Not because of one of his routines.

One day he saw the two of them together talking by the Tiger cage. He knew who Luigi was now. They held hands for a moment and then parted ways in opposite directions. Felix watched Luigi walk over to his brothers who started laughing when he said something.

Felix watched, just out of sight, behind stacked up bales of hay. An elephant trumpeted loudly, spinning him around in surprise. It’s keeper was bringing food. He walked back inside the big top, picked up some bowling pins, and began juggling them.

His anger was transforming to rage and threatening his sanity. His own thoughts disturbed him. All he could think about was getting the last laugh…

Luigi and Laura were talking about what to do about Felix. They wanted to declare their love to the world. But what was the best way to get him out of the picture? Divorce? Laura didn’t think she could stand the stigma and balked at the idea.

Hot-blooded Luigi brought up killing Felix one day after they were finished making love. Laura acted shocked, but something bad inside her considered the idea. The next time Luigi brought it up she asked, “How?

A monster was stirring beneath Felix’s clown makeup. He looked in the mirror on his dresser and didn’t recognize the eyes that stared back at him. He sat the jar of black grease paint down. This look was unlike any other clown around.

They called it “Blackface” in vaudeville. He pulled on a wooly wig and looked at the transformation. Tonight was the night. He would settle with his unfaithful wife and her lover.

That same night, Luigi talked his brothers into murdering Felix. He convinced them it was a family thing that needed doing. When they left to look for him, Luigi hurried off to meet Laura at a pre-arranged spot across the railroad tracks in an old lineman’s shack.

Not far behind him, Felix stealthily followed with a knife he stole from the circus kitchen. All Luigi could think about was meeting up with Laura. He never heard Felix come up from behind him!

In a swift vicious stroke he cut Luigi’s throat! He gasped for air and blood bubbled up from his lips. His body teetered for a second then came crashing down on the rough gravel. Felix watched his body twitch in its death spasms and smiled beneath his blackface.

Laura asked the lion and tiger tamer, Victor, if the plan would work. Again. He was getting impatient with her. Being the third wheel in a love triangle is never easy. He assured her the police would be waiting for Luigi’s two brothers and would interrogate them.

Felix would be dead, and Luigi would be left out in the cold.

Victor was right. Luigi couldn’t get any colder than he was. He was wrong about Felix however, who came up behind him, and drew his knife cleanly across his throat!

Laura screamed in horror!

Felix couldn’t stop laughing…

As It Stands, affairs of the heart can often be bloody.

The Firebug

The crickets lusty cries for love were silenced as Charlie walked through the meadow.

He loved the night because fires burned so bright in it. He didn’t think of himself as a pyromanic. It was a crude term for someone who just loved fire. He didn’t go around starting fires. His uncle, nor his friends, suspected Charlie’s fascination for fire.

It was fire that took his parents lives. He, and his sister Susan, escaped the burning inferno that was once their home. They were raised by their father’s brother Wilbur, a bachelor whose greatest claim to fame was that he served four years in the Army without getting kicked out for bad conduct.

Susan and Charlie were inseparable. When Susan, the eldest, turned 20-years-old she got her own department. Uncle Wilbur, glad to give up the responsibility for a 16-year old boy, let Charlie move in with her. His part in raising his strange nephew and niece was over.

Although Wilbur never complained, he was always uneasy with his brother’s kids. He couldn’t manage to establish a bond with them. They were distant. Often in a world of their own.

Charlie’s love for fire was complex. He was shy and preferred to be alone when Susan went to work. He dropped out of school, and no one said anything about it.

Charlie’s favorite thing about the apartment was that it was near a National Forest, and he could take long walks there. The meadow that separated the apartment complex from the forest was carpeted with clover and grass.

One day, Susan was late in coming home. It was a first, and Charlie was worried about her. It was after dark when she returned. Her clothes looked rumpled and she had a gleam in her eye that Charlie didn’t recognize.

She assured him everything was fine, and that she had just forgotten about the time because she was involved in a big project at work. Satisfied that she was okay, Charlie went outside for his evening stroll.

He almost reached the tree line when he saw the fire!

The blaze shot high in the sky fueled by spruce and pine trees. It licked the night sky and Charlie eye’s riveted to it. He stopped walking, and stood there staring in a trance. “So beautiful,” he thought.

Even though the fire was miles away, he could imagine the sound it made. Firefighters would have their work cut out tonight. He watched for hours until he was too tired to stand anymore. When he went to bed he closed his eyes and saw red flames.

Susan began to come home late more often, as the weeks went by. Charlie figured that she might have a boyfriend and didn’t want him to know. He thought about talking to her about it. Letting her know he was okay with the idea. He always knew they would go their own way some day.

One evening he decided to be adventurous, and walked downtown with the intention of going to a movie. But as he got closer to the theatre there was a traffic jam on Main Street and people were pouring out of a building screaming!

Then he saw the smoke and looked up at the back of the theatre building. Flames were bursting through the roof and streaking skyward! Charlie watched as they grew like a living thing!

The first fire truck had to fight its way through a panicked crowd of people. As the fireman went about their job, some people ran out of the blazing theatre. They were human torches!

First responders, paramedics and fireman, did what they could for those unfortunate people, but it was hopeless. They died writhing in agony. In the middle of the chaos, still standing in the street, Charlie watched…transfixed.

Soon, police were driving people off the street. The entire building was burning and the fierce flames lit up the entire night. Charlie was told to leave with the others who were still near the fire.

On his way back to the apartment Charlie went from exultant to sad, as he thought about the human torches. They didn’t burn very bright. Their agony touched him. But the flaming building touched him too. The sheer power of the flames made him giddy.

When he got home Susan was there. She was sitting at the kitchen table wrapping gauze around her hand and arm. Alarmed, Charlie asked, “What happened?”

“Sit down brother,” she said.

Charlie pulled up the other kitchen chair, and obediently sat down.

“I have a confession to make. I’m a firebug. I’m telling you this because, I have to go away and I want you to lead a somewhat normal life. If there is such a thing. I set the fire at the theatre tonight.”

She waited for the news to sink in, but Charlie seemed unfazed.

“I started the fire that killed Mom and Dad!” she confessed, as a tear ran down her cheek. “I don’t know what’s the matter with me Charlie! I’m obsessed with fire. Always have been.”

Charlie didn’t judge her harshly. She was his big sister and always took care of him. He understood why she had to leave. There was a chance she left clues and would get caught. Then they would lock her up. They might even kill her for her crime.

He loved his sister and he loved to watch a roaring fire. He knew that someday she would get caught. He couldn’t bear that.

When she finally went to bed that night he was still up…waiting. He felt no attachment to the world. When he was sure she was asleep, he went into her room and smothered her. He went around the apartment gathering flammable liquids like lighter fluid, and went back to her bedroom.

He lit a fire in the kitchen, the living room, and her room. He sat on the edge of her bed and watched as the flames grew…transfixed as always.

As It Stands, this portrait of a firebug is an experiment at looking into the mind of someone I never met.

Fear

They met during the night like thieves planning a robbery.

But they weren’t thieves. They were some of the most prominent people in Elsdale’s population of 1,623. Community leaders led by the small town’s mayor, Jasper Corning, a corpulent man who found walking difficult.

Ever since the family of strangers moved in, people talked about how different they were. Of particular concern, they were Muslims. The two women wore hijabs that covered their head, hair, and necks.

The three men wore traditional Taqiyahs (round caps) and had long dark beards. To the white majority of Elsdale it was like being invaded by a foreign country. They spoke another language and lived by Sharia Law, which the townspeople feared would somehow take over the American system of justice someday.

The two women, Manahil and Eshal, went to the general store, and the post office, once a week. Every purchase they made at the store was scrutinized by the owners who shared their observations at the VFW bar every evening.

The postmaster worried every time a package came for the Muslims that it might have bomb-making materials inside. They got lots of letters in their post office box. It was always packed tight by the time the women came by for their weekly visit.

The Muslims lived in an old two-story house just outside the city limits. When they purchased the house – with cash – word quickly got around town. Very few people had actually talked with the Muslims. Mostly Manahil and Eshal when they were on their weekly errands.

Hector St. George, the towns only banker, talked with the three brothers, Aaban, Rayyan, and Zayan Azimi, while handling the transaction. The bank had repossessed the house years ago, and no one seemed interested in buying it.

Until then the Azima brothers appeared with lot’s of money. They even opened a bank account, which secretly thrilled St. George (he didn’t want the others thinking he was getting chummy with them) who worshipped money more than any god.

The towns sheriff, Roscoe Winters, a Vietnam veteran with undiagnosed PTSD, spends most of his time on a computer reading about conspiracies in America, and drinking too much at the VFW bar.

As the weeks turned to months, the rumors surrounding the Muslims grew like a malignant cancer. They held orgies; the men were secret ISIS members; there was a stockpile of weapons in the old house, and on it went.

Fear replaced curiosity in the little community after six months. When the women came to town they could feel the tension, as accusing eyes followed their every move. As the stares seemed to grow more malignant they told the men what was going on.

The three brothers were dismayed, but not surprised. They seen this kind of thing before when they bought their first house in upstate New York after immigrating to America five years ago.

When their parents were murdered by extremists in Iraq they took the family fortune and fled. Two of the brothers, Zayan and Aaban, were married to Manahil and Eshal. The eldest brother Rayyan never got married, because his childhood sweetheart was viciously murdered by thugs before they could.

Fear finally materialized into action.

That’s why the community leaders were gathered at night in the mayor’s house. The rumors had some of them fearing for their lives. The sense that one day they would attack the town with automatic weapons shouting “Allah Akbar!” swirled among the group, sending shivers down some spines.

“Okay boys…settle down. What are we here for?”

“Because you asked us too Jasper,” Larry Henderson, the general store owner, replied.

“Thanks Larry. Now that that’s established, what are we going to do about the Muslims?”

“I think we ought to search their house and see what they’re up to,” John Baker, the postmaster said.

“There’s one problem with that Johnny, it’s called a search warrant. I don’t have one,” Sheriff Winter said, after downing a shot of 20 year-old Scotch.

The group broke out into a babble of suggestions that were going nowhere when the mayor shouted, “Enough! We ain’t getting a damn thing done here crowing like a bunch of roosters with no hen in sight!”

The room settled down to inaudible grumbles.

“Here’s what we can do. Larry, you can say you overheard the two women talking about making bombs. The sheriff can go to the county judge tomorrow and get a warrant to search their house. How’s that sound?”

Murmurs of agreement echoed around the room.

“I’ll leave before noon tomorrow to go see Henry (the county judge) and get that warrant. Right now I’m going to have a few beers. Anyone with me?”

Everyone in the room, except the mayor who was sitting in his favorite office swivel chair, followed the sheriff out the door and into the night.

The next day.

Sally Yates, a waitress at the only restaurant in town, “Chuck’s,” was the first to hear the roar of motorcycles. The noon crowd had thinned down to two old customers who were known to spend most of the day there drinking coffee and talking.

The loud intrusive roar made her look out the window. Her pulse quickened in fear as the riders of six motorcycles dismounted from their Harley’s. They were all members of the Mongols, one of the most feared motorcycle groups in America!

Sheriff  Winters had a shot of bourbon with Judge Henry Goodnight in the judge’s library. The judge had signed the warrant without question.

Back in town.

The bikers took over the restaurant and chased the two old men away. They were having fun baiting Sally who gamely tried to pretend everything was all right while taking their orders. The fun and games finally stopped, and their leader assaulted Sally!

Later the bikers roamed around town looking for more trouble. They went into the general store, and when Larry tried to stop them from helping themselves to whatever they fancied, they beat him and left him for dead!

Then they helped themselves to the hand guns behind the counter in locked cabinets. They broke the lock off with ease, and the leader passed them out to the others. He located the ammunition and gave each a box.

Armed, they went back out and headed for the VFW Hall. By now, people had seen them and were running for cover. The main street was deserted by the time they reached the VFW Hall.

The patrons inside didn’t have a chance. They were caught unawares and herded over into a corner of the room, while other gang members looted the bar. The group settled in for some serious drinking.

Unfortunately, Sheriff Winters didn’t even notice the main street was deserted. It was getting near dark and his first thought was to go to the VFW Hall for a quick drink, or two.

The room went silent when the sheriff walked in. Someone dropped a bottle on the floor and the shooting began! Rosco was hit immediately in the left arm, but he manged to draw his service revolver and return fire!

One of the biker’s spun around and fell to the floor, bleeding from a chest wound. Bullets sprayed the room like angry bees as everyone tied to get out of the line of fire. Rosco was hit again in the right side of his chest but kept moving and somehow got out the door and into the street.

A lone biker followed him and popped off two misses. Rosco turned and calmly fired back at him. One of the bullets found its mark and the biker staggered back inside the VFW Hall, leaving a trail of blood behind him.

Rosco summoned up the last of his strength and headed towards the nearby general store. Larry lay near the doorway, battered beyond recognition and barely alive. Rosco went to him and looked for a pulse. He was alive. Rosco’s wounds weakened him so much that he passed out.

Manahil and Eshal felt more uneasy than usual when they got to town. The streets were deserted. They went inside the general store and found Larry and Rosco passed out on the floor. Larry’s wounds soaked his shirt with blood.

The women quickly checked them out and found gauze, band aids, and tape, and treated them both right there. Eshal was looking at Larry’s wounds and easily recognized them as bullet holes. She had seen her share in war-torn Iraq.

Manahil went to the phone on the counter but only got a buzzing. Someone had cut the phone lines. Making a bold decision she told Eshal that she was going for the men. She knew Rayyan would know what to do.

He had fought in the Iraqi armed forces until Saddam Hussein took over, and he had to run from the purge that followed. He was a captain in the special forces. The other two brothers had no military experience, but grew up in hard times when they had to use weapons to survive the government’s attacks.

Rayyan listened calmly as Eshal told him what she found. Nodding he turned to his brothers and said, “We cannot let these people be slaughtered by those men. Allah would never forgive us.”

The brothers both nodded, and the three of them headed for town.

When they got to the general store they found Manahil listening to the sheriff’s heart. She looked at Rayyan and said, “He’s barely alive. We must get a doctor.”

Meanwhile Zayan and Aaban were behind the counter picking a lock on a chain that covered a row of rifles. There were repeating Winchesters, hunting rifles, and two AR 15’s. They took the two AR 15’s and asked Rayyan what he wanted.

“The Winchester is fine,” he said as they rummaged for ammunition.

As the three men set out to find the bikers Rosco woke briefly, “The VFW building,” he croaked and passed back out again.

The biker’s Harley’s were still parked in front of the restaurant. Rayyan started one up and gunned the engine! He drove it down the street and sat outside the VFW Hall. Zayan and Aaban both pulled up next to him, and they all three revved their engines.

Inside, the sound immediately caught the biker’s attention. One of them was dead, and another was badly wounded. Three innocent hostages were killed by errant bullets. The remaining four Mongols roared in anger and charged out the front door…into a hail of gunfire!

The next day.

Sheriff Winter’s got help in time by the town doctor, who was able to stabilize him and have him transported to the country hospital in nearby Turnsville. County police and the FBI were all over the town talking to witnesses and processing the crime scenes.

Mayor Corning was visiting Rosco when he handed him a piece of paper. It was the warrant.

“What about this,” he asked.

Rosco took it, and tore it in half.

“It’s about time we quit letting fear rule our lives,” he said.

As It Stands, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said, “There’s nothing to fear, but fear itself.”