I submitted my 750-word short story to Writer’s Digest’s Contest #18

The prompt: a police detective is assigned to a case involving arson at several Krispy Kreme doughnut shops.

When I first read this, my reaction was, “You’re joking, right?”

Be that as it may, I went through this process for the contest: a comical version that went nowhere, a serious one that seemed to focus too much on the detective’s past work as a firefighter and then a comedy that I grew to like. I chose to polish and then send in the comedy, and perhaps it’s only fitting. How many people snickered when they read the prompt?

As usual, here’s what I’ll do: below I’ll post the serious one I chose not to send in. The comical one I’ll post in about a month, if and when it doesn’t make the cut down to five. Right now, I see this contest as more of a fiction writing exercise than a contest. You know: write and let the words flow. If you’re writing for the sole purpose of seeing your name in print, don’t bother.

So, here’s the contest outtake: the serious version.

Not another fire!

By Richard Zowie

A lapsed Baptist, I don’t pray as often as I should. But right now I’m on my hands and knees praying, Dear God, please, not again.

It’s probably useless. God ignores prayers of convenience. Especially from a Baptist who hasn’t been in church in 10 years because he spends all his time either tracking down murderers or trying to keep a marriage together. My wife tells me I work too much and ignore her when I’m home. There are times I wonder if I’ll have to face the indignity of being served divorce papers right here in the precinct.

So, here I am: a 36-year-old cop who’s been assigned to help investigate a string of arsons at Krispy Kreme doughnut shops. Because I’m an ex-firefighter and a current homicide detective and because two of the fires have resulted in deaths of three people, the fire department wants me assigned to the case.

At my desk I examined witness statements, fire reports and lists of Krispy Kreme employees over the past year who’ve been fired or who left on hostile terms. A call to my confidential informant (a car thief) reveals nothing. He thinks it’s hilarious that a cop is investigating this kind of case, but he finally quit snickering when I threatened to tell Narcotics about the freelance heroin pushing he’s done. Of the 12 employees who were fired or who quit, all of them have air-tight alibis. They all tell me the same thing: the doughnut shops were run by a bunch of incompetent idiots who weren’t worth going to jail over.

I’ve worked on this case for a few weeks and have very little to go on. Between this and the other homicides I’m working, it makes for long days that begin around 6 a.m. and often don’t end until 10 p.m. I hope wife number three understands.

The phone rang.

“Detective Johnson, homicide,” I said, picking it up on the first ring.

“How’s the Doughnut case going?” I recognized the anxious voice as Chief Eichmann. He has a high, scratchy unmistakable voice and never identifies himself on the phone.

“Very slow, sir,” I replied, hoping he wouldn’t probe with questions that couldn’t be answered.

“The mayor wants to know the latest. We need to have a press conference.”

“Sir, there’s not really enough information for a press conference. Could we release a statement to the press?”

“Not enough information?” he asked. I told him what I had.

“Ok,” he said, sounding resigned. I imagined the mayor as one of those types who wants results but doesn’t grasp how incredibly slow and complicated police work can be. No, I’m not Vincent Hanna from Heat where a late-night visit with a rat who says the word “Slick” magically turns into the piece of the puzzle that brings down a crew of professional thieves.

The chief asked me to write as detailed a press release as possible and to send it to him so he can look over it.

So, I sat at my computer and wrote down what we knew. It made two paragraphs. I read over it twice, ran the spell-check, read over it again and printed it out. Knowing he hates documents like this to be e-mailed to him, I took it to his office and wordlessly give it to him.

I looked at my watch and saw it was 2:30 p.m., well past my lunchtime. The case is going slowly, and as an ex-firefighter who became a cop, I hope it breaks. Quickly. Too many bad memories.

When I worked as a firefighter, we responded to many fires, some of which involved people who’d been trapped inside an angry inferno of a house. Some fires were gas leaks, others due to faulty wiring and others started from sheer stupidity on the inhabitant’s part (such as cooking on the stove and leaving a boiling pot unattended). Each dangerous jaunt into a fiery house always made me wonder, would I ever see my wife and son again? If I did, would it be me or a charred visage in a hospital burn unit recovering from third and fourth-degree burns?

In all the fires I covered there were two things I’ve never shaken from my memory: the agonizing, hopeless screams of a person burning to death and the putrid stench of burning flesh. Both are as close to hell as I ever want to get. Even today, I still have nightmares. My olfactory nerves never work in my dreams, but my hearing is in high-volume surround sound. The screams remind of the 1982 horror film Frightmare at the end where a punk trapped inside a wooden coffin is slid into a crematorium. You hear him screaming helplessly in endless agony and know the only relief he’ll have is death or when his nerves are too damaged to sense pain—whichever comes first.

And that’s assuming he won’t still have to spend an eternity in hell.

The nightmares aren’t as bad today, but while firefighting they were horrible. Charred corpses screaming at me to save them. Wearing my firefighter’s uniform, paralyzed, and watching helplessly as a beautiful woman is set ablaze. She screams and screeches and writhes while her skin and flesh slowly melt and char away, reducing the show-stopping features to ones that would make everyone scream as they ran toward the exits. Her eyes melt and boil away while her hair blazes and burns away. I dreaded every call, wondering if the next fire would yet be another inferno to add to my nightmare. Finally, the day came when I approached my chief, handed in my badge and turned in my uniform.

So, I became a cop.

Here I am as a cop, almost laughing at the irony of it all: an ex-firefighter with a bad case of pyrophobia now has to investigate the adventures of a pyromaniac. I imagined the stupid questions reporters might ask at the press conference:

“With all these doughnut shops burning down, where will the police now go to get breakfast or a snack?”

“Has the police department enlisted help from Homeland Security? The FBI? The CIA? The Mossad?”

“Which do you miss the most, Original Glazed, Chocolate Iced Kreme Filled or Apple Fritter?”

“Is that ‘Time to make the donuts’ guy from the Dunkin’ Donuts commercials a suspect?”

I shuddered, glancing at my mountain of paperwork as I left for lunch, an hour’s reprieve. When I return, it’ll be time to rip open old scars and let them bleed again.

Copyright © 2009 by Richard Zowie. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or republished without permission.