“Get out of the house!”
I was helping Dad tidy up after the party. It was nothing heavy - plastic beakers forgotten here and there, some crisps trodden into the rug, a couple of dog ends on the back porch, but that was just Lee’s big sister, she’d come over to walk him home and had sat down there looking out into the evening sky while she waited.
That was when Dad found the phone.
“Nope, I don’t recognise it,” I said, handing it back.
“Put it down on the side. Ask around tomorrow, you’ll find out pretty quick who’s lost it.”
After we’d finished, I was back down in the den watching Bruce Willis save the world. Things always looked better on the big screen down there rather than the telly in my bedroom.
A phone started chirping.
I hit the remote and looked around.
It was the cellphone where I’d left it on the side cupboard. I flipped it open and put it to my ear.
“Hello…” I started tentatively.
“Get out of the house,” said the voice. “Get every last one of them out of. And do it now. Quick!”
“Look, I don’t—”
But it was too late, whoever had been calling had already hung up.
It was the voice that got me. It was cold and flat. I hadn’t recognised it but, more than that, I would have been have put to say if it was young or old, man or woman. Not a kid’s voice, that was for sure.
And strangely enough, I felt it had been speaking to me. The message was for me.
I stood paralysed, still holding the phone as the words and the urgency slowly sank in.
Bruce Willis was staring straight at me, looking at me over his shoulder.
I leapt up the stairs and pounded on the door to my parent’s bedroom.
“Quick! get out of the house!” I yelled as I flung the door open.
“What the—?” I heard my father say. But I was already running back downstairs. Smokey, the cat, normally slept on the dirty washing in the annexe.
I grabbed the cat who protested because I’d woken her up, and then tried to scratch her way free.
“Let go, stupid!” I hissed back at her. I wrapped her in my sweatshirt to try and stop her clawing at me.
Mum and Dad were just trudging downstairs when I got back from the annexe.
“What’s going on?” yawned Mum, rubbing at the sleep in her eyes.
“No time to explain,” I bluffed as I ran for the front door. “We got to get out of the house. Quick!”
Once we were all waiting on the pavement, bathed in the orange street light, Dad turned to me. He was wearing a faded blue track suit bottom, and his tee-shirt was inside out. Mum had slipped a sweatshirt over he shoulders but was only wearing her night dress.
“So what’s going on?” he said sternly. “Is this some kind of a joke?”
The night was calm and peaceful. There was no-one around. I suddenly wondered if it had all been a prank after all.
Then the house exploded into a ball of flame.
Fireman with big boots
I know now why firemen always seem so big and tall. They wear shoes with soles that are at least 3 inches thick. Or, at least, this one did.
He took us over to the side, out of the way, and behind a massive red fire engine with lots of valves and shiny parts. We sat on the steps to an ambulance with mugs of hot, sweet tea, while a man in a white gown dabbed a sticky brown liquid on the deep scratches across my stomach. The cat had really panicked when everything had blown up.
Now the street was wide awake, with friends and neighbours crowding behind the yellow ribbon stretched around the cars and trees. Some of them were filming, others were just craning to get a better look. The house was completely gutted, th roof had fallen in. There were charred spikes sticking up from the broken walls. Smoke and steam were floating around as a last team of fire-fighters held a hose up, dousing the rubble. Something must still be burning in there, underneath.
In the next ambulance more white coats were fussing over Mr Coleman from down the street. He’d had some sort of attack, and now had an oxygen mask, and tubes in his arms.
A uniformed policeman brought over a smallish man in thick glasses and a raincoat. He spoke to Dad.
“A real stroke of luck, you all being out of the house like that… How come?”
“Someone called Ian,” said Dad, looking away from the man and looking at me. “Strikes me as a miracle he got us all out.”
The thick-rimmed glasses turned to face me.
“Yes,” he said. “That, or arson…”
“Hang on there!” Dad jumped up. “Are you accusing us of something? Because I don’t like—”
“I’m just stating the obvious,” the man cut in. “Accidents don’t normally come with advance warning…” He paused, slipped a hand inside his rain coat and flashed some sort of ID card at Dad. “Bernard, Derek Bernard. I’m the Fire Inspector on you house, so we’ll need to have a chat tomorrow. Meantime, you should all get some rest.” He looked back at the ruined house.
“Do you have somewhere to stay? If not, I’m sure Social Services can probably help.”
Dad looked sort of grey and deflated.
“I suppose some of the neighbours’ll put us up.”
Mr Bernard turned to go.
“Just one thing,” he added. “You can’t go back to the house until we’ve finished. I’m sorry, that’s how it goes. But, speaking from experience, there won’t be much to salvage. What didn’t get destroyed will have been thoroughly soaked. believe me.”
He left, and the Policeman started asking Dad about insurance, reminding him about declarations, and noting things on a small pad.
I realised that I was still holding the phone.
The next day found us all in freshly-brought new clothes sitting in front of plastic cups of tea and Mr Bernard at the Police Station.
I’d slept the night on the floor of Lee’s bedroom, and, boy! did his trainers stink. I think he’s got some sort of mutant foot rot.
Mum and Dad had slept on the sofa that pulled out to a bed.
I thought I’d be too excited to sleep, but I was out like a light, waking up to find myself in unfamiliar surroundings and the stench from Lee’s shoes.
“Our preliminary findings do suggest it was, indeed, an accident.” Mr Bernard was saying, his thick glasses constantly looking in my direction. “A gas explosion, in fact.”
“But we don’t have any gas in the house,” said Dad. Mum nodded.
“There was no mains piping, indeed,” he said. “But I wasn’t talking about that sort.”
“Well, what then?” Dad wanted to know.
“But what’s..? And how..?”
We understood the words, but not how everything fit together. Perhaps our senses were out of order after the night.
“Organic matter decomposes underground, releases methane. It seeps up through the soil. However, it’s heavier than air, so it can collect in caves, cellars, mines…”
Something about canaries in coal mines, and a sort of safety lamp that we’d heard about in school crept back into my memory. I nodded.
“We’ve got people going round the area even now with a device, and electronic nose we call it, just to check that there aren’t any other pockets just waiting to explode.”
“What… What set it off?” asked Dad.
“A spark of some sort, most probably,” said Mr Bernard, no looking at me again.
“Oh,” muttered Dad.
“But what, I wonder, made the spark..?”
“What do you mean?” Dad spoke for all of us.
“This sort of thing happens. A build-up of an inflammable gas. The right mixture of air, a night light, a hot plate, a candle, and Boom! We arrive, pick through the pieces and determine the cause. We always finish by finding the flash point. Sometimes there are unfortunate deaths, sometimes lucky escapes. That’s the sort of thing that happens.” He paused, looked at the cups of cold tea, looked at us. “But this is the first time on record that we have all the family, even the cat, waiting outside for the blast to happen.”
“But Ian told you… The phone call…” Dad said.
“Yes, and that makes all the difference. So, do you know anyone who might have any reason to want to blow your house up, Mr McDonald?”
“This is ridiculous!” Dad exploded. He hit the table. “A nightmare! Our home blows up, under our noses. We’ve lost everything, even the insurance papers. Its going to take months — if we’re lucky — to sort things out and get back to some semblance of normality. And you… you come up with cock and bull stories from some bad TV series. I think we need our solicitor.”
“Did you happen to see the number when you received this… warning?” The thick-framed glasses ignored Dad’s outburst.
“No,” I said.
“I told you, it’s not my phone. Someone left it, after the party.” I pulled it out of my pocket and pushed it across the table. “Here, take it,” I said. “Examine it. That’s the sort of thing you do, isn’t it?”
“Not me, but yes, we do have people for this sort of thing.” He didn’t pick up the phone, just looked at it. “Thank you. You’ll get a receipt.”
There was an envelope on Derek Bernard’s desk with a label that said ‘Evidence’. It contained a mobile phone. Technically the phone wasn’t evidence, he thought. But by treating it as such, by having a clear, established paper audit trail on the phone from the moment the boys father had signed it over to him would simplify matters when — and he was sure it was not ‘if’ — when things came to Court. The motivation, he guessed, was simple, as things were so often: money. With the current state of the economy, the insurance on the house was worth far more than its market value. And with the current state of things, they couldn’t expect to sell it anyway. Sure, he hadn’t yet found the mechanism that set off the explosion, but that was just a question of time, or patience, of methodically sifting through the debris, of calculating the flash point, of feeding all the data into the different models on his computer. He took off his glasses and massaged the bridge of his nose. It had been a long day. He put the glasses back on and looked at his watch. Nearly eleven p.m. In a few minutes it would be sixteen hours since he had started work that day.
He sipped his coffee, but spat it back into the mug. It had been pretty foul to start with, now it was both disgusting and cold.
He ruled a line in his notebook to close this day’s notes and then wrote tomorrow’s date under the line. Like he did at the end of each day’s work. He closed the notebook and was about to lock it in his drawer for the night when a cellphone sounded.
Instinctively he felt his jacket pocket, but he knew it wasn’t his phone. He always set it to vibrate when he was in the office.
The envelope on his desk was vibrating.
He didn’t have time to pull on gloves, so he swiped a tissue from the box on his desk and eased the phone out of the envelope.
“Yes?” he said.
The voice was flat, no intonation, no accent. He couldn’t even be sure if it was male or female, although he thought male. It had a sort of otherworldy quality, not mechanical or electronic, just something else.
The voice said, “Do not enter the premises at one-twenty-five Church Road.” And it was gone.
He was just noting he incident when the desk phone rang. It was an outside call. He sighed and picked it up.
“Bernard? They said I’d find you here.”
With relief, he recognised the voice. He saw himself as a rational man, but he had to admit that the other call had seriously spooked him.
“Inspector,” he said. “I was just leaving. I’ve had a very long day…”
“Sorry, but it’s your name on the rota. Until midnight. Sometimes you wins…”
“And sometimes you lose. OK. What have you got for me?”
“A nasty one. Textiles, mainly plastic. A warehouse in Church Road. You can’t miss it.”
Involuntarily, Derek Bernard shivered.
“Be right there,” he said and hung up.
Last Year’s Stock
The traffic was blocked. Bernard had to leave his car in a drive way with a Police notice perched on the steering wheel. he hitched up his bag and walked the two blocks to the scene of the fire.
His badge got him through the barriers and to the street where a mess of fire engines were drawn up, orange and blue lights flashing, with heavy-set men in helmets and breathing gear darting around, while others sat to the side, resting. Another team were rolling up hoses. That meant that the fire was out.
Inspector John ‘Jock’ Harris was leaning into a police car, holding a radio in one hand while conversing with the driver. He waved Bernard over.
“2 to 1 it’s an insurance scam,” he said. “Fire started in a stock of tee-shirts. Last year’s, I guess. Didn’t sell and someone needed to convert them to cash, one way or another. Either that, or a disgruntled employee with a grudge.”
“And?” asked Bernard. He saw from Harris’ red eyes that he had put in hours just as long as his own. Or it had been fumes from the fire.
“Cotton tees. With all the nylon and polyester in there, the fire started in cotton. Except it didn’t burn much. Mostly smouldered.”
“Isn’t that for me to decide?”
“Of course,” he smiled thinly. “I’m just giving the background.”
“Right Jock. Sorry. It’s been a long week.” He looked at Harris again. “For all of us. Meanwhile, have you got a spare kit for me? Had to leave the car a couple of blocks away.” “I’m sure we can find that for you.”
He handed the radio back to the policeman in the car and walked round to open the boot where he pulled out a square bag.
Derek Bernard started pulling the baggy white suit over his clothes, slipping his feet into the paper-white shoes covers. He took a digital recorder from his bag and slipped it into a pocket. Finally he clipped a badge onto the front, shouldered his bag and set off for the steps of the warehouse at one-twenty-five Church Road.
As he passed Harris’ car, the policeman passed him a walkie-talkie, then tapped him on the shoulder. He nodded and pulled the face mask up on his nose, under his glasses.
He made his way through the crowd of cars and engines and looked up at the building. At some point in the past someone, probably the landlord hoping to shave a few pennies off the price of the periodic repaintings, had completely covered the front in sheets of corrugated iron. They probably hadn’t been in good shape to begin with, but under the assault of the fire, and then the fire-fighters, some of the panels were hanging free. A couple had even fallen, or had been wrenched off to access blocked windows, and revealing the planking underneath. It would probably have been a fine building if someone bothered to do it.
He started to climb the roughly-cast concrete steps, another cheap and ugly addition by the landlord he guessed again. The bulky shadows of two firemen in full masks and gear passed him, going down the stairs.
He pulled the radio up to his mouth, pushing the button with his thumb. It gave out a blast of static.
“Jock,” he said. “How many are there still in the building?”
He lifted his thumb and waited for the burst of static that preceded the reply.
“Can’t be more than a handful now. Why?”
The sharp hiss at the end of his question indicated that he was waiting for the answer to his question. Bernard hesitated If he was wrong, he was going to be a laughing stock. But if he was right, there could be some really devastated families tomorrow…
“Derek?” The radio crackled.
“Clear the building, Jock. Now. Get everyone out.”
“Of course, they want to give you a medal, Derek, it’s part of the show.”
Jock Harris leaned on the bar and shook his head at the thought of someone refusing a decoration.
“But it’s just doing my job,” Derek Bernard sighed. “It’s not like I went in and pulled them all out or something.”
He had watched the firemen scurry out of the building. Jock had just given him the ‘all clear’ on the radio and was, himself, just retreating back down the steps when the building had collapsed back in upon itself, the sudden blast of air throwing him forwards into the dirt and wet cinders. Two of the firemen — anonymous figures hidden behind masks, helmets and ash-stained cheeks — had jogged back and hauled him to safety as wood splinters and shards of glass rained down around them.
“If anyone deserves a medal, those two do,” he mused.
“And I dare say they’ll get a citation, too.”
Jock finished his soda. No alcohol. You never know when you’re going to be called back out again.
“So how did you know?” he asked.
“I didn’t. You can call it a luck guess, I s’pose.”
He didn’t want to think about the voice in the telephone. Not at all. It was too… irrational. Eerie.
“They’d done their best to hide it, but it was an old timber-framed building. Take your choice. Years of neglect; a complete disregard for safety regulations, especially the maximum weight those floors could take; we’ll probably find termite damage; and then the fire. The place was a disaster waiting to happen…”
“But that’s it, don’t you see? There was no disaster. You acted on a hunch and everybody goes home in one piece.”
And if he hadn’t… He would probably be dead too now.
For the first time he thought about the boy — what was his name again? He must have felt this very same floating feeling of relief an disbelief. Now he could see it, exactly as it must have happened. The phone call. All the family outside the house, and then that feeling. What if nothing happens? And then the disaster averted.
All because of that phone.
Mr Bernard handed back the receipt. Dad looked at me and shrugged. He tore the sheet of paper into small pieces and then sprinkled them into the wastepaper basket. We were all downstairs in the empty dining room of the Hotel where we’d moved the handful of possessions that was all our life now.
“And you really don’t know what happened to it?” Dad said.
“Like I said, I locked it in my drawer, and the next day it was gone.” He sighed. “Impossible, of course.”
“So why the change of heart? I mean the last time we met you had as down as a bunch of arsonists, or I don’t know what else. And now we’re cleared. What happened?” The heavy frames turned towards me.
“I got a call, too.”
My heart missed a beat. I heard that cold, strange voice again.
“A warning.” He paused, moistened his lips. “If I hadn’t… I don’t think I’d be here, talking with you now. Simple as that.”
But I had had time to think this over. Lying on a strange new bed, in a strange new hotel room. I looked down at the table, the cups, the sodas, the empty plates, the wrappings.
“Ian?” said Dad. “You’re not saying much.”
I looked up. All eyes were on me. All these people who probably wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for that mysterious phone.
“I dunno. We’re all acting like we should be thankful or something. But I heard the voice. And it didn’t sound all that friendly, or nice. I mean, we’re still not absolutely sure how our house blew up, are we? If this phone can call us, well — what else can it do? Perhaps it’s got its own plan. And it just used us all.” A cold silence fell on the table. “And now, it’s out there somewhere. So what’s it going to do next..?”
This was the first of this series of short stories. I hope you like it.
It is not based on any personal experience at all. In fact, I didn’t even do any research for it, and really don’t know if Fire Inspectors, like Derek Bernard, really exist. But the story of Methane and other gasses, particularly Radon, building up in the cellars and basements is true, and can be very dangerous. Watch out!
This story came about because my 14-year-old daughter Kim — even if she now denies it — when asked what sort of stories she liked said ‘Stories where there is magic and mobile phones’. I took that to mean, magic and fantasy in a contemporary setting, but here I wanted to give her a story with a ‘real’ cellphone in it.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 France License.
Last edited: Thursday, August 27th, 2009blog comments powered by Disqus