Warning: This chapter contains adult language and humour. If dirty words offend, please read no further.
Again, this is a first draft, so expect errors. This is one of those chapters I'm a bit worried about infodumping in. Feel free to comment below, and thanks for reading!
Stirling watched glumly as the fire crew rolled up their hoses and prepared to move out. Thermite, no matter how well intentioned, had its consequences.
When the alarm pad inside the workshop counted down to twenty seconds without the right code being entered, a signal was sent that ignited a magnesium ribbon leading to a kilo of homemade thermite. The thermite in question had been packed onto the top shelf of the gun safe so everything below would be drenched in molten metal.
Stirling had put the thermite there when he realized that some of his creations were a danger to the public on the same scale as radioactive waste, or that seasonal favourite, “Last Christmas” by Wham!. Twenty seconds would tick away after the signal was sent in which a magnesium ribbon would slowly burn its way toward the thermite. It would be just long enough for Stirling to open the safe and yank out the burning ribbon if something had gone wrong with the keypad.
Once the thermite ignited though there was no turning back, it would burn through anything with a melting point below twenty-two hundred degrees Celsius—which is nearly everything.
The out-gassing of the exothermic reaction had blown the safe door off its hinges and embedded it into the drywall next to the entrance. From there, the fire had spread out to engulf a third of the workshop before the firetrucks had shown up. By that point, the thermite reaction had ceased, and the conventional fire was easily put out.
Once the hot spots were all doused, the fire crew had begrudgingly let Stirling pick through the remains. The duck he’d completed the night before had been squarely in the burn zone and no trace of it remained. Stirling wasn’t surprised because he could still feel it in his mind, it hadn’t burned, it had been taken. At that very moment, it was on the move somewhere to the west of him.
A dust-free silhouette on the soggy shelf by the door showed where a neat row of over twenty hardcover black notebooks used to be. Losing the duck was a blow, but losing the notebooks was a genuine catastrophe.
The notebooks were the journals of his progress, more than that though, each one of them was an irreplaceable work of art. They weren’t DaVinci’s journals, but the notebooks were as close as someone like him could manage. He’d documented countless experiments, every breakthrough and failure. There were pen and ink sketches, hundreds of tables and graphs. He’d invented his own shorthand to better describe the mental processes needed for specific spells. They had literally taken years to create, they were the reference he needed for any future work and they were gone.
He began his first notebook out of necessity at the age of fourteen. Up to that point he’d led a perfectly regular life, then, for a few brief minutes in that golden summer of his youth Stirling had ceased living and everything changed.
It had been a long sunny afternoon swimming with friends when he performed a spectacular dive off a wooden dock, and just as spectacularly, slammed his head into a rock at the bottom of the lake. It took long minutes for his friends to notice that Stirling hadn't surfaced and by that point his heart was already struggling toward stillness below the surface of the water.
They located him minutes later, motionless on the rocky lake bottom, a red halo gently drifting around his head. By the time they tugged him back up to the surface, his body contained all the life and vitality of a dented can of Spam.
In most cases that would have been the end, but as luck would have it, one of the girls on the dock that day was training to be a lifeguard. She administered CPR long enough so that when the paramedics finally arrived, they could do more than simply check ID and wait for the Coroner.
Immediately after his abortive death, Stirling was the centre of attention for his friends, school, and community. He was in the papers and the local news station did a story on water safety using his experience as a cautionary tale. The local parents even banded together for long enough to get the dock closed to the public for the rest of summer.
While he didn't bask in the spotlight of his dubious celebrity, it was still jarring when the initial furor passed and people began to draw away from him. Friends that he’d known from childhood were distant, and a cold bubble of exclusion began trailing him wherever he went.
From then on it was impossible to make new friends, and it was around the same time that animals began to shy away from him. In under a week he’d become the social equivalent of a pubic hair in a bowl of vanilla ice cream, and the worst thing was he had no idea why.
Then things began to get more strange.
He would be riding the bus, or walking through the mall when for no apparent reason he’d begin to shiver. Most of the time it didn’t last long and he’d be able to sit down and wait for it to pass. At the time he thought they might just be a lingering reaction to his mishap, a neurological tick from lack of oxygen, but he began to notice a pattern. The chills never happened when he was alone and they occurred the most when he was around the elderly.
Some of the episodes were nothing more than feeling his hair rise, lasting just a few seconds, others felt like he was suddenly biting down on the leads of a set of jumper cables.
It was six months after the chills began while visiting his grandfather in his nursing home that the pattern behind the shivers suddenly became clear.
The lady in the room next to his grandfather, whom he only remembered for her lurid fuchsia lipstick, was undergoing palliative care. Her family was present, holding vigil with tissues and red-rimmed eyes. A near-tangible silence flowed heavily from her room into the hallway.
The care nurse told them in the kind of quiet voice that people normally only used in libraries, that the room’s occupant had only hours left. By the end of the visit, Stirling was shaking so violently that the nurses, his mother, and grandfather, were all convinced that he was coming down with the flu.
The nurse in charge of the floor, who possessed bosoms that any airbrushed Valkyrie would envy, palpitated angrily over and whispered at his mother that, “The boy not come back for a visit until he was feeling well.” And, “Didn't she know that the elderly were much more susceptible to illness?”
Stirling knew better, he wasn't feeling at all sick. The pattern had clicked in his mind, he understood where the the chills came from and why they mostly happened while he was around the elderly. Somehow he could sense death, the closer it was, the more violent the reaction. From that day forward he was careful to avoid care homes, hospitals, and any restaurant that advertised an early bird special. He also began to test the limits of his ability and wrote down his observations in a series of black notebooks.
Stirling fished his phone out of his pocket and dialed Rebbecca.
“Don’t call me Beccy,” said Rebbecca.
“Or Double b Double c, or anything else but Rebbecca.”
“Say it with me, Ruh-bec-ah.”
“No time for love, Dr. Jones. You know that credit card number you got for the job today?”
“Did you already run a deposit on it?”
“It’s what you pay me to do.”
“Good, run that deposit again, but this time accidentally add another couple zeros on the end. We deserve a nice big Christmas tip.”
“It was an accident, it could have happened to any number of self-absorbed party girls, which is exactly what I’ll tell the credit card company if they ask. Besides, everyone knows us millennial-types are a bunch of feckless moochers.”
“I’m not self-absorbed! And my sex life is just fine, not that it’s any of your business.”
“I said ‘feckless.’”
“Oh. So you’re just going to rip these guys off?” Stirling was a bit surprised at the lack of resistance. He thought that he’d have to spend time convincing her to go along with his little plan.
“Probably not. The credit card company will claw it back when they realize the mistake, but in the meanwhile, I want to open a dialogue with these people.”
“Because when I got to East Van nobody knew a thing about the job, and when I got back, my place it had been broken into and my workshop was burned down.”
“Wait! I think I’ve heard about this kind of shit! Burglars get everyone out of the house, then break in and steal Christmas presents right before Christmas.”
“Yeah, that was probably it,” agreed Stirling, examining his fingernails.
“Did they take my present?”
“Did you hear the part about how they burned down my workshop?”
“Yes, my present wasn’t in there was it?”
“No, but they…”
“And you have insurance?”
“So, the question is, did they take my present?”
“Not sure, I’ll have to check,” he said evasively. Rebbecca caught the tone of his voice faster than a piranha on fresh meat.
“Wait, did you get me another Carnivore Club membership?” she asked, her voice turning dangerous. “Artisinal cured meats delivered to your door monthly?”
“Of course not, you’re a vegan. Anybody who has ever spoken with you for longer than thirty seconds knows your a vegan.”
“I was a vegan last year and it didn’t stop you.”
“I thought it might be just a phase.”
“I’ve been a vegan since we met at university. That was ten years ago.”
“Just put the credit card through, alright?” he said.
“Fine, but I want a thoughtful gift this year, no bags of pork rinds.”
“And if this credit card thing comes back to bite me in the ass, I’m totally blaming it all on you.”
“Got it. Thanks, Reba.” He hung up.
A firefighter with an impressive salt and pepper ‘stache straight out of a 70s porn video, noticed he was off the phone and walked over to where Stirling stood off to the side watching.
“I’m Dave Richards, the Assistant Fire Chief,” he said extending a hand.
Stirling shook. “Hey Dave, love the moustache, thank you very much for all of this,” he said motioning to the burned out workshop. “If nobody’s told you this yet today, you guys are fucking fantastic.”
“Thank you,” Dave replied, smiling. “This your house?”
“Any idea what might have caused the fire?”
“Might have been the ceramic heater.” Stirling offered.
“That’s one hell of a ceramic heater.”
“I have poor circulation in the winter, got me a real good one.”
“Ceramic heaters don’t usually blow the doors off of gun safes, or get hot enough to do this,” he said tossing Stirling a glob of blackened metal the size of a golf ball. Stirling caught it, it was still warm.
“I loved that heater,” Stirling sighed.
The fire chief shrugged and nodded toward the workshop’s heavy metal door that had been ripped off its hinges and tossed to the middle of the lawn. The handle was missing, and the door itself was bent back from the deadbolt at a ninety-degree angle.
“Like I said, it must have been one hell of a heater, because that door wasn’t us. It was already sitting on your lawn when the trucks arrived.”
Stirling nodded, there was nothing short of a nuclear strike that could have taken that door off, he’d installed it himself. The thermite certainly hadn’t bent it like that, and he couldn’t help but draw a mental line between the mangled door and the three missing decoys.
Seeing he was back, one of the local ghosts had perched on top of the burned-out shed and was gleefully yelling insults while shaking his glowing ghost ass at Stirling. He ignored it.
“You got insurance?”
“Some, it’ll cover the damages, not the intangibles.”
“It never does. Well, sorry about your workshop, lousy thing to happen around Christmas. Good luck with the insurance company.”
“Thanks, Dave, and please thank your guys for their help,” said Stirling waving weakly at the fireman’s retreating back. Dave waved back without turning.
“Hey, Dave,” Stirling called, thinking of something.
The fire chief turned. “You think your guys at the hall would like artisinal cured meats sent to the station monthly? I’ve got an extra gift certificate.”