So continues my September Stories project! If you missed any of them, go here for a running list at the bottom.
By Danielle Davis
Baker’s rig was the last to pull on scene. He made a quick assessment as he pulled the fire engine to a stop in the street. It looked like they’d gotten the fire under control. A few firemen in bulky suits and masks manned the hose from the corner of the yard. The water made a graceful arc through the air and sent up hissing plumes of gray smoke where it encountered flames. In the mist fanning out from the water, he saw a twinkling rainbow of canary, amethyst, and orange. Several other firemen moved about, some entering and exiting the house, others talking to the police or taking information from an assortment of people standing around in their pajamas.
Baker gave a sidelong glance at Forrest, who sat in the front seat next to him. “Ok, ready?”
Forrest nodded. Immediately both bounced their fists in their palms. “One, two, three, break!” Forrest held out a fist between them. Baker’s fingers formed a pair of scissors. He groaned.
“Aww, man, no! I got the homeowner last time!” Baker held out his fist in hand again. “Best two out of three?”
Forrest grinned at him and opened the door. “You kids have a good time!” he called in a sing-song voice. Then he was gone and the door slammed shut leaving Baker seething by himself. After a deep breath to compose his irritation, he got out and let one of the police direct him to take the homeowner’s statement.
“What’s your name, sir?” He tried to keep the weariness from his voice, but it was difficult. When he just kept seeing the same damn case almost daily, it got hard to keep an unbiased perspective. It’s just…when were these folks going to learn?
“Horatio Aloysius Quisenberry.”
Baker glanced at the guy to see if he was kidding but the man’s soot-streaked face was expressionless. “You’re kidding right?”
“What do you mean?”
“Nevermind.” Baker jotted down the name, cursing Forrest for giving him the victim duty. “Now can you tell me all what you remember about what happened?”
Horatio ran a hand through his hair and let his breath whistle through his teeth. Baker tried not to roll his eyes. He wasn’t asking for a thesis defense, for Chrissakes, just a friggin’ memory. Was that so difficult for these people?
He took a deep breath to compose himself. Losing his temper wasn’t going to make this night go any faster. Even though he already had an idea of what had gone down, he knew he needed to let the guy tell his side of things. Not for the first time, he wondered if it might not be time to retire.
“Well, we put Bethany down around eight, then stayed up to watch some TV. Uh, The Late Show, I think. I drank a few beers…Christina had a glass of wine. After that, we took a shower, then went to bed. I woke up to the fire alarms going off. I woke Christina, barely had time to grab Bethany before her room went up, and we ran out the door. Christina took Bethany next door to the Smiths’ house and called you guys.”
One of the other firemen, Simonton, tapped him on the shoulder and whispered in his ear. It was just as he thought.
“Uh-huh.” Baker kept his voice carefully neutral as he jotted Simonton’s comment into his notes. “And did you use the oven at all tonight, sir?” His voice was pitched to sound as if the idea had just occurred to him.
Horatio frowned at him. “Uh, yeah. Yeah, I made chicken nuggets for my daughter.”
Baker sighed. It figured. It always came back to the obvious. “Did you leave the oven on after the nuggets were done, sir?”
“No, we turned it off. My wife’s always very careful to–”
“But you did intentionally turn it on at some point in the evening?”
A line appeared in between Horatio’s dirty brow. “Well, yes, I just told you I did.”
Baker made a noncommittal grunt. “Did you think about the possibility that it your actions might have dangerous consequences? I mean, before you turned the oven on..?”
Horatio snorted. “You mean chicken nuggets?” He snickered at Baker, but his smile faded when he realized Baker wasn’t smiling back. “You can’t be serious. Are you…you’re not suggesting this is somehow my fault, are you?” His voice cracked with incredulity.
Baker glanced at him, then looked back to the clipboard. It was always so hard not to burst out with some sarcastic remark when these folks had the nerve to act shocked. As if they were so foolish they didn’t realize the implications of their actions. Actions that put their own kids at stake. The ones with kids always made him the maddest.
“Actually, Mr. Quisenberry, I was just informed that the fire originated from the kitchen. Faulty wiring connected to the oven. ”
Horatio gasped. “What, it did? How?”
“Oh, you know, it’s, well….only the number one cause of home fires. I can see how it might come as a surprise for someone like you.”
“Wha—How dare you?” Horatio spluttered. “Someone like me? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Someone who doesn’t pay attention to his surroundings. Someone who doesn’t bother to use caution when dealing with dangerous situations that could easily slip from his control. Should I go on?” Baker could feel his temper rising, but he was finally past the point of caring. It was too much to see the same outraged face every time he pointed out something most other people considered to be obvious enough.
“I demand to see your supervisor.” Horatio’s voice was no more than a whisper in his anger. He wrapped his arms around his ribs, like he was cold.
“Yeah, I’ll get right on that,” Baker drawled. “Look I know you didn’t do any of this on purpose. None of them ever do. But you put yourself in that situation just the same. Ignorance is no excuse for stupidity, Mr. Quisenberry.”
Horatio’s lips pressed into a thin line as he glared at Baker. “I can’t believe you think this was somehow our fault. We had no way of knowing the oven was going to go wrong! We barely got out of there alive, you outrageous pr–”
“And why was that?” Baker asked sarcastically. “Maybe because you drank too much? Also a pretty foolish thing to do. Didn’t you worry what might happen while your senses were dulled?”
Horatio relaxed his arms from his sides and examined Baker’s face. “Are you hearing yourself? Are you honestly asking if we thought our house might catch on fire if we drank? You’re saying all of this like it was our fault, like we brought this on ourselves. But you already said it was faulty wiring—tell me, how were we supposed to know something was wrong?”
“When was the last time you went through the house and inspected all the outlets for loose-fitting plugs, Mr. Quisenberry? Checked all appliance cords for wear? Had an electrician out to check your circuit breakers to make sure the fuses are properly rated for the circuits they’re protecting?”
With a dazed expression, Horatio shook his head. “I…I had no idea I needed to—”
“Ok, let’s try an easy one, then. Do you use extension cords inside? Multiple power strips that are regular fixtures?”
“Tons of people do that, though!” Horatio exclaimed. “I’m not the only one that does that!”
“But ‘tons of people’ don’t have their houses on fire right now, do they? Just yours.” Baker cocked an eyebrow. How was common sense so hard to come by for some people? He shook his head. Some of them really did bring it on themselves.
Horatio turned to the house and watched it for several long moments. A short woman in a T-shirt and a pair of boxer shorts walked up. She looped an arm around Horatio’s waist and pressed herself against his side. She gave Baker a tired smile.
“They say it’s almost taken care of,” she murmured.
Baker noticed a singed hole in the shoulder of the woman’s shirt. Without intending to, he let out a mournful tsk noise. Horatio heard and glared back at him over his shoulder. The woman looked at Baker with a questioning expression.
Baker gestured at the woman. “C’mon Mr. Quisenberry! You’re going to tell me you didn’t expect this at all?” He didn’t notice the stares his raised voice attracted as some of the firefighters closest to them looked over. “It’s almost as if you wanted this to happen! You even let your wife dress in a cotton shirt to bed–why was she dressed in flammable clothing, Mr. Quisenberry? Do you have an insurance policy on your wife one of these officers should know about?”
“Horatio, what’s he talking about?” the woman asked with a fearful look at Baker.
He didn’t care. Let her be afraid. She was the one married to the monster that let all this happen in the first place. He threw his clipboard to the yard in disgust.
“I’m done!” he shouted at nobody in particular. He stomped back toward his rig, barely aware of Forrest running up to meet him. He wrenched the door to the truck open and saw Horatio and his wife still standing where he’s left them, their faces wearing mirrored shock. He leaned across the passenger side to yell at them through the open passenger window.
“You’d better educate your daughter about the dangers of walking around without a fire extinguisher! Make sure she doesn’t make the same mistakes!”
Then Forrest was lifting himself into the passenger seat and staring at Baker with a mixed expression of worry and wariness. “What gives, man? You finally going off the deep end?”
Baker sighed and ran his hand through his hair. He let the blinking red and blue whites of the cop car in front of him hypnotize him. “I dunno, man. I just…I guess I finally had enough. It just get so…so tiring after a while, doesn’t it? The same old story…?” His voice pleaded with Forrest to understand.
After a moment, Forrest sighed. “Look, you didn’t say anything we weren’t all thinking. It’s just… Man, you gotta learn to keep your mouth shut! It’s not going to look good for the department when this gets out. Sure, it’s a societal thing that’s not going to change. Is it really unreasonable to expect the fire from starting in the first place when a spark goes off? Of course not! But that doesn’t stop some people, does it?” Forrest’s voice turned cajoling. “You just gotta keep that in mind when you do calls like this. The same bimbos are going to make the same mistakes. We all know they’re asking for it. But we gotta act like it’s not their fault.”
Baker nodded, frowning. “This world’s going down the drain, ain’t it?” Forrest nodded. “I mean, society nowadays, man! Never any personal responsibility. People always want to go blaming something else for why they get themselves burned.”
“I know, I know,” Forrest lamented. “But look on the bright side: without these idiots, we’d be out of a job, right?”
With a sidelong glance, Baker eyed Forrest and laughed. There was always a bright side. And sometimes, it wasn’t just the reflection of the flames.