It's A Mystery
Volume One's 2008 Fiction Contest Winner
It was a towering blaze, a regular, bona-fide inferno, eating through the old apartment building like a bright orange locust. Smoke rolled from every window of the structure in whirling bursts of black smoke that dissipated, then re-gathered into a surreal fog that hung like an ominous spectator above the scene. Predictably, a crowd was present, created and multiplied by the free of charge, life and death spectacle set before them. From out of this crowd a man flew forth, a man wearing a knee length gray coat only half-buttoned, his face pained, his eyes darting wildly as if pondering some larger life question. Directly, the man was able to arrive at a conclusion to his dilemma. Having arrived, he made a mad dash toward the apartment building seemingly bent on, if the reader will permit me, extinguishing himself.
Of course, he never made it anywhere near the fire. A phalanx of broad shouldered policeman, rendered impotent in the face of the consuming blaze, eagerly gang-tackled the man to the pavement. The gawking throng, content only moments before to bask in the heat and light of the disaster in front of them, turned their fickle attentions to the suicidal character in the gray coat. They craned their collective necks to get a look at the man whose head, once the police managed to untangle themselves, reappeared to the general view. Despite his unenviable position beneath the two policemen who remained protecting him, the man shouted a plea to the crowd.
“My wife, my kids, my family is inside!” he shrieked before the police duo squashed his voice into submission.
The man’s efforts were not futile, however. His plea was so gut wrenching, so provoking of pity, that the crowd found itself re-enraptured with the scene. Instead of merely a burning building, now the spectators had a real chance at seeing some of their fellow humans being roasted alive. Here was a disaster story with some teeth. Dozens of eyes squinted for the sight of a fricasseed forearm, a roasted breast. Maybe even a flaming head.
Meanwhile, the blaze concentrated on what it was doing, oblivious to human interest. Licking orange tongues of flame flicked out of windows, greedily sucking in precious oxygen before leaping to the next window, the next floor. The apartment building fire was a shame, but a loss. The fact that there were people inside was even more of a shame. But the fire department had yet to arrive, and the fire was anxious to finish its business.
The tackled man in the gray coat momentarily wriggled free from his protectors and screeched a primordial prayer to whatever gods might be of help in the situation. Impossibly, a fifth story window flew open and three blond heads, one belonging to a woman, the other to a pair of smaller people appeared, the sum of them readily and eagerly identified as the family of the man. It was as if the pagan screams of the gray-coated man had conjured his family back from the dead. However, as fine a miracle as the appearance of the man’s family was, gravity and thermodynamics were quickly conspiring to reinsert the blond-headed trio back into the bosom of eternity.
“There they are!” screamed a rather large, ruddy-faced woman whose good fortune it was to have moved into the apartment building across the street only one week before. Some people really do have all the luck. Others, such as the blond-headed family in peril, clearly do not.
Even so, at that moment there came the far-off wailing of fire trucks, bugling their imminent arrival like the cavalry of old. A sigh of relief went murmuring through the crowd. The firemen were on their way. The blond-headed woman and her two-headed brood would be saved by the kind of rescue that inspires our little ones to become firefighters themselves. The sirens neared, the fire shot higher. The fourth floor was succumbing to flame – surely warming the little feet of the stranded family in a kind of Dantean punishment. It was a race against time, man against natural disaster, good versus evil.
Undoubtedly, as in every good thriller, the firemen would arrive in the nick of time, saving the family of the gray-coated man just as all hope appeared lost. There would be a picture in the paper the next day of a fireman, his face smeared in ash and soot, his arms protectively surrounding the family he had saved. A few weeks later, particularly in an election year, that same fireman would be on the front page receiving an award for bravery. This time, he would be clean, in his dress blues, and shaking the hand of a smiling politician. And, had the fire trucks been able to fly, this happy ending might very well have come to fruition.
Alas, the wailing of the fire trucks’ sirens seemed to be coming no closer and the crowd, noting the proximity of the fire to its flesh-covered hostages, became anxious.
“Where in the hell are the fire trucks?” asked a young man between sips of his Coke. “It sounds like they stopped.”
The young man was quite an astute listener. For, only three blocks away, the fire trucks had, in fact, come to a grinding halt. There was nowhere for them to go. Traffic was backed up in all directions due to the gang of spectators watching the fire. Worse, most of the offending vehicles were sans drivers, curiosity compelling a mass vehicle exodus in order to join the gaping throng. The firemen stomped and cursed and even broke out the windows of a Mercedes that was angle-parked onto the sidewalk. Objectively, the Mercedes was not any worse of an offender than a number of other vehicles. But the moment was emotional. In such emotional moments, better a Mercedes than the vehicle of a workingman. The senseless vandalism did nothing, however, to get the fire trucks to the scene. The fire department was utterly and completely screwed. And that is to say nothing of the tow-headed woman and children hanging desperately from their apartment window.
It is said that, in each group of people, there are men who are special. Men with sand. Men who answer the call in desperate times. Men who, though indistinguishable from their fellow man under normal conditions, separate themselves from the mediocre who surround them with feats of daring and courage that would be unthinkable to these same everyday Joes.
In this crowd, daring and courage were at a premium. Even so, the odds cannot not be beaten. The cream rises to the top. A transvestite, dressed in a spangly black negligee, his legs snuggled by black garters, his feet clad in bright red pumps, sprung from a crack in the crowd in an attempt to be this man (or so) of courage and daring. Our hero expertly flipped off his/her shoes as the cops closed ranks, juked the first would be tackler out of his jackboots, and then streaked toward the apartment building in a display
of speed that left the crowd breathless. When the transvestite reached the building, she-he leapt ballerina-like toward a pipe on the wall, grasped it with two perfectly manicured hands, then shinned up the pipe like a squirrel up an oak. The speed and dexterity exhibited by this would be hero/heroine was truly Olympian. The cops were left hands on knees, staring up the skirt of the valiant lawbreaker.
The transvestite quickly reached the second floor, then the third, his skirt flapping in the wind to reveal a pair of bright red panties as spangled as the negligee. Paired with the orange of the fire, the panties made a bad match. But, circumstances being what they were, no one remarked upon the fashion faux pas. As our would-be savior neared the most intense area of the inferno not only did the primary danger of incineration pose a problem, but also there were the fire’s secondary effects. Notably among these secondary effects, as far as the acrobatic transvestite was concerned, was a particularly immutable law of thermodynamics. Metal conducts heat. Since the pipe upon which he/she straddled was metallic, this was quite a problem indeed. Thus, our heroic figure slowed, alternating holds on the pole to keep from being burned about the hands, arching
as far as possible from the hot metal in order to avoid being burned in more vital, albeit ambiguous, areas.
The crowd gasped.
“He’ll never make it,” cried a fat man in a business suit.
The forehead of the fat man was dimpled by beads of sweat grown pregnant by the heat of the fire. The fat man wiped his face with a pinstriped sleeve and shook his head. “The little fairy doesn’t have the balls for it.”
“I could have told you that,” replied a young woman, cradling a small child in her arms.
“Society has gone to hell in a hand basket.”
Seeing the transvestite stuck and unlikely to finish what was most definitely a full-time man’s job, a policeman aimed a bullhorn at the burning building and fired away.
“S-Sir,” he started tentatively, “this is the police department. Come down now! The fire department is on its way!
I repeat. Come down off of the building now!”
The crowd murmured its general approval at the officer’s command. Obviously, the figure hopping above them on the pipe was not the hero type. If the woman and children died, which looked more and more likely as the flames surrounded their open window, at least they could go with some dignity. This “rescue attempt” was simply embarrassing.
The bullhorn clicked on again, the echoed voice it projected now noticeably irritated. “Sir! You are not helping rescue efforts! Come off that building right now!”
Before the dangling, madly jigging transvestite could offer a response, the window to the immediate right of the stranded family exploded, belching out an accompanying spasm of smoke. The blond-headed trio, along with their sequined protector, disappeared from view. The crowd held their communal breath, fearing the worse, yet riveted by the opportunity to view some freshly killed people. Behind them, the fire trucks were starting to make some headway, creeping forward through a gradually clearing path. Too little, too late was the consensus. Gray coat’s family was doomed. Probably the flit-boy, too.
But, then, a miracle. The dark smoke cleared to reveal the figure of the negligeed pixie as he was sliding down the pole. Astonishingly, amazingly, logic defyingly, the transvestite had the two children with him, one clasped tightly in his hairy left arm, the other draped piggyback. As he reached the bottom, he dropped the children into the waiting arms of the police like a mother bird dropping her chicks into the nest. When he began his new ascent, it should be noted, the cops did nothing to stop him.
The crowd roared its approval at the rescue of the soot-covered moppets, but reserved bestowal of bona fide heroism on the charred fairy. The children were one thing. But the mother would take a lot more doing. After all, even allowing for the distortion of distance, it seemed plain that the mother was at least the size of the singed little transvestite, not to mention the fact that smoke was now bellowing from her window as well. Even if he/she managed to coax the woman from the window, it appeared unlikely that the fairy possessed the manliness to transport the woman to safety.
“Never do it.”
“Yeah. Instead of getting burnt up, she’s going to drop to her death.”
“Who’s that butt ranger think he is, anyway?” queried the fat, sweating man.
But enough from the ungrateful peanut gallery. For high above them, badly blistered, heat-seared, inhaling lungfuls of smoke at each agonizing breath, the small hero in the spangled nightie held out his petite hand to our roasting Rapunzel.
“Grab hold!” she/he screamed over the roaring of the inferno, the deep voice both surprising and comforting to the fair-haired damsel.
The woman reached out tentatively, coughed hard, then hesitated. Her eyes scanned from the good princess to the crowd below. “What’s your name?” she asked suddenly, as if she had just then remembered to be polite.
“Divine Providence,” replied Divine with a shy fluttering of eyes. “What’s yours?”
“Well, Susan,” Divine cried, “just put your hand out and I’ll swing you over to my back.” Divine winked. “And hurry it up. It’s starting to get a little hot up here.”
“I don’t know,” Susan replied. Her eyes scanned doubtfully over her rescuers attire. “Can I trust you?”
“With your life,” Divine replied, grabbing Susan’s hand in his with a firmness that Susan certainly was not expecting. Before Susan had time to think, her slim, pretty savior flipped her onto his back with the grace and skill of a former circus performer known in the Bible belt as Orlando the Great. Like a monkey on a stick, Divine flew down the building side with the fortunate Susan clinging tightly to his little body. The pair hit the ground amidst a circle of cops who, dumbfounded by what they had just witnessed, might as well have been turned to stone.
Upon reaching safety, Susan was so overjoyed, so utterly grateful for her life and the lives of her children that she spun Divine around and kissed him full on the lips. The kiss was not overly passionate. In point of fact, the kiss was probably one of the more chaste kisses ever smooched. Regardless, the innocence of said kiss did nothing to prevent Divine Providence from being waylaid by a sucker punch delivered by an inordinately furious gray-coated man. Unprepared and undersized, Divine was laid out cold, hitting the sidewalk like a bag of loose change.
“Goddamn pervert,” said the gray-coated family man. Then he gave Susan a kiss of his own. And you talk about passionate.
As they embraced, a photographer from the Times snapped picture after picture, making sure to crop them in a way that captured the magnitude of the inferno behind them. The picture, for which the photographer would win many awards, ran on the front page of the next day’s paper. Above the picture the headline read – Woman and Children Saved by Divine Providence Alone. According to the accompanying article, the Vatican was already looking into the matter.
No mention was made of any groggy transvestites.