Book excerpt

Smoke Eaters

A Thriller

Mattie McCullough Mysteries

Christine Andreae

St. Martin's Press

06 June 9:32p Directory C:\*.*
It started last September, after the Fletcher Canyon Fire. The last crews had been demobed, I had folded up our tent, the caterer did a Last Supper thing, surf and turf at three o’clock in the afternoon. We happy few. We band of brothers. We were all supposed to stand up and sing Hail to Logistics. Going out I got stuck behind a U.S. West communications rig, ate its dust for twenty miles with a rubber string of langouste stuck in my top molar, hit hardtop and stopped off at the first place I came to: a dive in the middle of nowhere. Log front, broken neon sign, cabins out back under the pines, inside packed with groundpounders making up for lost time. The road was lined with vehicles on both sides.
She was with a hotshot crew, four or five of them, in red T-shirts. Red with a dragon that looked like a squirrel on the back. If every other jerk in this business thinks he’s got the Great American Novel waiting up his ass, every tenth jerk thinks he’s some kind of Rembrandt. She wasn’t wearing the artwork. She was wearing a sleeveless undershirt and no bra. You could tell right off she was no groupie. The undershirt was white cotton with tiny little ribs in it and on the back it was stained pink where she’d taken a hit from retardant. You could see it made her cocky, not that she didn’t have the right. Her Nomex jeans were baggy, bunched around her waist with a web belt, like, don’t give me no shit, bud. Her body had a hard little strut to it. She had the shirt stretched down into her jeans and the front of it was wet, and so was her hair, one of her pals had slopped beer all over her, and you could see her nipples, small and dark through the wet white cotton. Her tits were nothing to write home about, but she acted like they were. Her eyes were beer-blurry, someone said they’d been demobed that morning.
Well, I got in there at eighteen hundred. I lost count of the beers, but after a while, the place began to thin out. She stayed. She did an arm-wrestling number at the end of the bar with a college kid from Minnesota. You could see tufts of dark hair under her arms. She won. She was stronger than she looked and the kid was slobbering. He passed out and she came over and took the stool next to me. Hey, she said, her voice slightly hoarse.
Hey, I said back. I lifted my bottle. Join me?
Who are you? she said. She squinted, then said, Don’t tell me. You’re a camp slug.
I raised an eyebrow. I wasn’t wearing anything she could ID. No badge, no cap, I’d changed into a polo shirt. I hadn’t bothered to change out of the olive-drab jeans, but there was no way she could have known I was overhead.
She reached over and with two firm fingers drew a slow line along the top of my thigh. Your Nomex is unsullied, she said. Diction like a queen. You like it, don’t you? she said.
I’m thinking, oh shit. Like what? I said, casual.
Wearing your Nomex. She grinned and the sinking feeling stopped, just was gone, and then, Christ! I felt a stab, a jolt—like long time no feel! I couldn’t believe it!
She looks at me amused and cocky at the same time, like she knows exactly what’s happening with me.
You like fire, she says.
I respect fire, I tell her.
Hey, we all got respect for the Dragon, she says. But with you it’s more than that. With you, it’s different.
You can tell.
I can tell, she says. I’m a witch.
As in Wicked Witch of the West?
She corrects me: As in Fire Witch.
I’m wondering how drunk she is, how reliable my resurrection is. I ask her if she wants a beer. She says she doesn’t think so. I drain mine and put the empty on the bartop between us. I say, You got a name, Fire Witch?
Sounds familiar. Not wonderful, but she gets it. She peers at me, checking to see if it was intentional. So to speak, I say.
She laughs, then chokes and coughs up black shit into a blue Kleenex. She looks at it. “Fucking smoke.” Then she laughs again.
I was feeling dry. I nod at the bartender and he plunks down another cold brown bottle streaming icy water. I close my hand around it and she touches me again, presses two fingers just above my knee, presses hard. “Don’t drink it,” she says and she pulls a book of matches out of her jeans, holds them up like a magician about to perform. I’m still feeling where she pressed her fingers into my knee. She swivels around so the bartender’s at her back, straightens her spine, opens up her knees, there I am, sitting pretty.
Watch, she says. She lights a match, meets my eyes and moves the flame under her chin. Yellow light flickering on her throat. She stretches her neck like a dancer, then elegantly draws the match down and circles her right breast with it. She holds it against her nipple, smiles, then with a quick flourish, shakes out the flame, drops the match in my fucking beer. She flashes the book of matches at me.
How about you light the next one? she says.
I got the key to one of the cabins from the bartender. I ask him how much.
No charge, he says. You guys worked hard, you deserve a good night’s sleep. He winks. Jesus! I was so turned on, I was embarrassed to walk to the door. Outside, it was still light, only eight o’clock, and the acrid smell of ash, pushed down the mountain by cooling air, hung over the cabins. There was one narrow little window over the bed. Abracadabra time. We went through her book of matches, shiny maroon cover, from a bar off Higgins Avenue. Small world, she was from Missoula too, but the coincidence wasn’t a big deal, it just felt normal, like it was meant to be and I don’t mean like in some cheap little song. It was as if something had shifted and we were moving on another plane of existence, everything was meshing, it all worked, I had this clarity. Margaret’s inept fumblings, her pathetic attempts, all that discreet maneuvering to get me “to see someone,” it didn’t matter, none of it mattered at all. Tires crunched outside on the gravel and she worked her magic. She was a witch! I was six years old and forty-six at the same time. We ran out of matches and I had to get dressed and go back to the bar and bum a pack off the locals who were celebrating their pathetic windfalls, some guy with a dozer making megabucks off us, another bragging about three thousand ham sandwiches he’d sold us at five bucks each.
Matches worked best. We tried her Bic, yellow mini number she had, disposable, but it wasn’t the same. Matches
06 June 10:04p Directory C:\*.*
Shit. Margaret came in. I exited so fast I almost lost this. Next time I’ll just switch screens. Saved this under CAT, got to come up with something safer. I imagine Margaret squinting at the menu. CAT?
I can’t believe she’s doing this to me! The bitch lit a fire in my head all right, but I’m not plucking any silver apples of the moon or golden apples either. Road apples is more like it. Here I am sinking in shit and Margaret comes in and puts her hand on my shoulder. What are you working on, hon?
Go to bed, I tell her, I’ll be up in a bit. She wouldn’t leave. Maybe her estrogen was kicking in. What, I say, you want me to come up and diddle you?
She didn’t. Where was I? Matches. Strips of cardboard dipped in sulfur. They consume themselves, a one-of-a-kind event that leaves only a residue of ash. Matches equalize. Both the one worshiped and the worshiper feel the sting of flame. The match releases its wave of heat, the flame bites her skin, my fingers. We’re connected by a line of fire, a sacred radius. The radius may move, like the needle of a compass, but it’s indelible. She is still connected to me. She doesn’t know it, but she is.
We drew a magic circle. A square in a circle, futon on the floor under the windows. The floor had just been refinished after the last tenant, so we put mayonnaise lids under the candles. A magic circle of fire. We had two whole days together, candles burning the whole time. Shit came out that I’d forgotten. We were both crying. You’re healing, she said. She sucked on a jay, sucked on me. You’re incredible, she said. You really are a fire god.
07 June 8:45a Directory C:\*.*
Never made it upstairs last night. Crashed in the den, woke up on the carpet—no hangover! But on the way into work, I’m seeing the needle of a compass. A fire-licked needle against the darkness, something out of William Blake, but if’s moving, gently swinging back and forth. A radius isn’t static. I got her on my car phone. Male voice answers: Hang on. Real casual. Maybe if’s one of her brothers-in-fire, a warrior pal fucking her brains out, thinks he’s something else. Then she comes on. Cat? I tell her about how we’re a moving radius. I can hear myself telling her. She says, Are you stoned?
Listen carefully, she says. Call me again and I won’t call your wife, I’ll call this geek I know at the paper and give him a Pulitzer on sexual harassment and Smokey Bear. You’ll make our president look like a saint. She hangs up. I almost rear-ended a fucking Volvo in front of me, had to stop at MacD’s to get it together. Went into the men’s, locked myself in a stall, started blubbering, talk about your head in your underpants, Jesus Christ, I had them stuffed in my mouth trying to keep it down. She’s not going to get away with this. I can tell you that. I can tell you that right now.
10 July 2.19a Directory C:\*.*
What’s amazing is, no one notices. They say, Looking good, lost your love handles, ha-ha. This afternoon, tried it with this whore, big blond girl. Bought a bunch of wintergreen candles, it was that or carnation, they were out of unscented, and took her to the Twilite Motel out Fourth Street. She was game. Problem was, her bush was blond and kind of scraggly and without glasses it was hard to see where it was and she got a little singed and freaked out about it and I let her have it. She claimed I’d broken her nose and I had to give her two extra bills to shut her up. All that winter-green, the place stank like a locker room. No way she’s going to report it. It was an accident. What’s she going to say, this trick burned my bush? I’d like to see the cops’ faces! Besides, she hasn’t got a clue who I am.
Christine Andreae lives with her husband in Bentonville, Virginia.