by James Tyler Reichle
Diane paced. Today, of all days, she was desperate. Steve had been late for appointments before, but never this late.
"Be there in ten, Annie," he had said.
She hated that nickname, and here she was an hour later with no sign of his arrival. She straightened the fake cherry-blossom plant on the table, its chemical tone contrasting against the dark wood below. Next to the flowers lay the remnants of her ire. She stared with disdain and numb fear, then bent down and prodded the mess she had made. Desperation crawled over her skin and sheathed her in its suffocating grasp. If anyone ever found out, she’d be dead.
"Damn it, Steve!" she screamed into the living room. She swiped her cell phone from the edge of the table and dialed him. Five consecutive rings reverberated within her ears before Steve's voicemail prompt played. She groaned and ended the call.
The fireplace was cold and empty. Soot from the party last month still lined its brick walls. She had considered lighting a fire that morning, but Steve admonished her not to use it until after it had been cleaned.
Tires rolled over gravel outside the window. Diane carried her slender frame with grace to the parted curtains. Atop the white and grey gravel of the driveway sat a black van. Gold letters emblazoned its large sliding door and hood.
“S.F. Sweeps,” Diane muttered into the window pane, “about time!” She marched to the door.
Steve Farrisburg stepped out of his van, circled it, and mulled over what he’d need. He lit a smoke and stared at the car. He had a van full of tools, but he figured he'd have to take a look first if the chimney was as clogged as Diane let on. He stomped his cigarette into the gravel, sauntered up to the front door, and gave it three solid knocks. It opened.
Diane blocked his way inside. "You're a bit late, wouldn't you say?" she asked, a caustic smirk warping her pretty face.
Steve pretended to look past her into the foyer. "Last job ran long. What can you do?" He clicked his tongue and looked up.
"You could try sending a text, at the very least. I thought you'd blown me off." She crossed her arms and stood fast.
He grinned and replied, "I've been offering to blow you for years, but you always turn me down. Honestly, it's your loss."
She rolled her eyes and turned away, allowing him to enter the foyer at last. He closed the door and followed behind her.
Steve whistled and mused, "I forget how much I hate how loaded you are. Is that vase made of solid gold?"
She continued to ignore him and made her way to the den. She headed straight to the fireplace, halted, and tapped her foot.
"It isn't even that cold. Why are you making such a fuss about getting the damned chimney cleaned this instant?"
"I didn't call you here for your commentary. Get that chimney cleaned." Diane faced him and growled, "Now."
He held up his hands and took a step backward. "Okay, fine! No need to be so bitchy. I gotta get my tools. Hang on."
As he left to scour his van for tools, Diane stared at his butt. "God, what an ass!" she muttered, her meaning two-toned. She shook her head. Those thoughts had meaning years ago, but today they induced a vomit reflex in her gut. She gagged.
Steve chuckled as he approached and opened his van door. Diane had flustered him; he still didn't know which tools to grab. A brush, vacuum, and several basic chemicals comprised his tentative toolkit. He turned to face the house and smiled. This was not a job that he had selected out of passion; he started young and never had the motivation to do new things. After a few decades, he was able to buy out "Philly Sweeps" from its previous owners. He changed the name and carried on.
Today, he felt a scarce sense of pride. He stared at the aged, nigh antiquated red brick chimney and marveled. He whispered Diane’s name to himself, then entered the house still bearing a smile. A new object of beauty now presided over his conscious mind. In their younger years, Diane and Steve had a few flings. They were wild for each other, and those feelings never waned. Despite their obvious passion, they never quite figured out how to make things work. They invariably drifted—or fell—apart.
In the kitchen, Diane set herself to the task of brewing coffee. The aroma of fresh grinds floated about, filling the room. Two ceramic mugs sat on the counter and awaited their allotments of liquid refreshment. She scanned the fridge for creamer. Creamer in hand, Diane stared at the cupboard. Of all her cups, she had selected the most modest for herself and Steve. She knew what Alan would've done. He would've frowned and admonished her by saying, "Didn't I buy us nicer mugs than this?" The thought pinched Diane's nose into a scowl. Her hatred for her husband was subtle, but lately it threatened to explode.
Alan was rich, handsome, and certain of his value to the world. He met Diane in college and became determined to marry her. Diane rejected his affection, but he was beyond persistent. After more than three years of wooing and chasing, she caved for reasons all her own. Eventually, Diane fell in love with Alan. He was charming and fun, if not trying at times. His money didn't hurt, either. He bought them a big house outside of town, and together they settled into a comfortable life of slow-burning resentment. She hated him because all he cared about was stuff, and in response all he could do was buy her bigger and shinier stuff.
The luring aroma of coffee drew Steve into the kitchen, tools in hand. "Is that what I think it is?" he beamed.
"Yes, a cup of poison for you and some coffee for me. Hope you don't mind the aftertaste." Diane snickered and sipped.
"I don't half doubt it, knowing you." Steve sipped at his coffee and breathed a sigh of contentedness. "Thanks," he said.
Diane freed herself from the counter and brushed past him. "Mind getting to work? Can't have you dead before you're done."
Once back in the den, Steve set about organizing his tools. As he finished, he glanced at the table and raised an eyebrow. An overturned picture frame flanked by broken glass sullied the otherwise orderly surface of the table. He reached for it.
She swatted his hand away from the debris. "Leave it alone! Damn it, Steve, focus on your job, or it will never get done!"
Steve retracted his hand and groaned. With his dust mask donned and his flashlight in hand, he leaned into the fireplace. Steve's legs stuck out from the fireplace, but everything above his waist was obscured within its brick, soot-lined gullet.
Diane took a moment to glance at a mirror hanging near the chimney. Her mascara had bled more profusely than she realized. She extracted a pack of tissues from one of the table's narrow drawers and dabbed at her placid eyes. She whined, "Why didn't you tell me I look like a hot mess?" When Steve didn't respond to her prodding, she kicked his leg. Steve growled and mumbled something in return, but his words were swallowed by the greedy structures of the chimney. She kicked his leg again for good measure, then glanced at herself a final time in the mirror to assess her clean-up job.
Steve wriggled out of the fireplace. A layer of soot marred his shirt. "The fireplace is definitely clogged, but what's your problem?" He clawed his way to his feet with the aid of the table.
"You're my problem. Get your tools and do your job!" She directed him to the front door with her delicate index finger.
Steve scanned her face. She tried her best to hide her pain beneath a facade of rage, but fragments of sullen remorse seeped through. Steve considered pushing his well-meant inquiry. Instead, he settled for emitting a dramatic sigh and walking away with his hands in the air.
With Steve outside in his van, Diane shuffled out of the room and dashed up the stairwell adjoined to the foyer. She ducked into her room and exhaled a chestful of stress. At the back of the room lay her personal walk-in closet. She hastened through the doors and tasked herself with the retrieval of a slender, silver jewelry case. The rectangular container reflected the overhead light, revealing its hiding place. Diane plucked the box from behind a pastel blue dress she had worn at yacht party two summers ago. She opened the lid, verified its contents, and trekked back down to the den.
Steve bundled the last of his tools under his armpit and locked up the van. He hesitated a moment, his feet caught halfway between the turn from the van to the house. The decade-old images of Diane in his mind wouldn't subside. His anxiety was beginning to grow. She had never been this prone to letting her emotions overwhelm her. He'd have expected any one of his guy friends to break down before Diane. She was strong. If he had been unsure, he would have quizzed her for the source of her discontentedness, but he already knew the problem. Alan was the problem. Since the day he strode into her life, he had put her under pressure. First, it was the pressure to have to reject him. Next, it was pressure to say, "Yes." Pressure to entertain, to rub elbows, to schmooze, and similar demands soon followed.
Steve lugged his tools back to the house. He intended to take his time cleaning. He would go at a snail's pace and, if his luck held out, Alan would waltz in the front door precisely as he was finishing. They could then come to a mutual understanding about Diane.
Diane opened the jewelry case and spied its contents again. Stashing it in her dress, she pulled her thick shawl downward and hugged it to her body.
Steve rounded the corner with his tools, pensive as ever.
"Something happen out there?" she asked.
"No," Steve replied. He submitted himself to the floor once more. Broom in hand, he shuffled and scooted himself back into the maw of the fireplace.
Diane scratched her sternum. The cold metal irritated her skin, and the slow passage of time pricked at her mind.
The layers of filth were deceptively dense, and their removal proved easy. In appearance, the caked-on ash seemed the result of long periods of neglect. In practice, though, the soot was coming off as if it had been deposited as recently as the prior morning. Flecks and chunks of soot rained down on his face. Steve cursed and chastised himself for not stocking up on face masks at the beginning of the week. Half-way through the job, he was a third of the way to being buried alive in ash. He persisted, freeing an arm every so often to brush off his face, chest, and abdomen. The detritus piling upon him was far more viscous than typical fireplace remnants.
"How's it going in there?" came Diane's inquiry from outside.
He didn't reply. If he opened his mouth to talk, he'd swallow a mouthful of soot, and he'd choke. The last thing he wanted was to meet his end in Diane's fireplace. Only a few feet of soot near the topmost part of the flue remained. Steve extended his broom another notch and scrubbed away the last bits of stubborn ash. Flakes fell down upon him like ill-born snow; he swiveled his head to avoid what he could. Once the brunt of the ash storm had passed, he squirmed his way out and to his feet.
"What the fuck did you burn in there?" He searched for a clear spot on his sleeves to clean his forehead, but failed.
Diane tittered an embarrassed giggle, "You know how parties can get. Even rich snobs get plastered enough to throw their pants into the fire."
"Pants," he resigned, smearing the ash on his face, "sure." He surveyed himself in the mirror. "I'm going to grab my vacuum and some rags."
With Steve outside, Diane once again departed the room. Her nerves buzzed as she patted the case through her clothing.
Steve made it to the first step of the patio before coming to a halt. "Something isn't right," he rubbed his grimy face with his hands, "but I can't pin down what's bothering me." He resumed his path toward the van, albeit in a more trudging manner than before.
Diane swept into the kitchen. She opened the top drawer adjacent to the induction stove and plucked out a box of matches. The drawer's proximity to the modern appliance which had supplanted a gas-fed predecessor infuriated her. She filled a kettle full of water and set it on the faux burner. She missed her gas stove top, her last connection to roots in non-affluent society. Alan had replaced it with an induction stove without so much as warning her. He had claimed the upgrade was for "keeping up appearances". Diane believed it had been yet another maneuver on his part to contain her, to keep her for himself. She despised the noiseless, flameless monstrosity.
Steve re-entered the house, not quite clean but considerably less grimy. He set his vacuum down and scoured the room for an open outlet. Diane had departed the den, presumably to use the restroom or freshen up. Unable to locate an unoccupied outlet, Steve unplugged a reading lamp in the corner and replaced it with his vacuum. By his estimation, the cleanup process would take no more than ten minutes. Afterward, he would confront Diane about her husband.
In the empty kitchen, the kettle approached its boiling point.
Steve dragged the hose of the vacuum forward and thrust it into the fireplace. He struggled to get enough length out of the power cord and gave it a frustrated yank. The cord didn't budge. He yanked still harder, expelling the cord from its socket. A startling crash announced itself from behind. He growled and spun around on all fours to see what he had broken.
The teapot in the kitchen began to whistle.
The picture frame Diane had snapped at him for approaching earlier now lay on the floor. Steve crawled toward it. He vacillated between picking it up and leaving it be, then settled on the former. Turning the delicate, golden frame over in his hand, he gasped. Within the aurulent encasing and fragmented glass remained an intact photograph of Diane and Alan on their wedding day. Steve now understood why Diane had been so caustic toward him; the very subject of Alan perturbed her.
As he ruminated on the contrasting smiles gracing the faces of the newlyweds in the photograph, Steve began to wonder. Had the picture frame been damaged by accident? Was this sudden burst of symbolism into Diane's life an unwelcome trauma? There was another possibility in his mind that better fit the fiery personality of the Diane he had known in his youth. The trauma of Alan's existence wasn't anything new to her; he believed that she had smashed the picture frame willfully, even violently. He set the frame back on the table with care.
After crawling over to the socket to reconnect the power cable, he tugged on his vacuum to bring it closer to the mess on the floor. He flipped the power switch and removed the hose to begin cleaning up the glass. Before he could reach the debris on the carpet, he noted a faint but distinctly metallic sound coming from inside the vacuum. Fearing permanent damage to the device, he killed the power to it and opened the containment chamber.
Having set the lid aside, Steve peered into the chamber. Seeing inside the vacuum was next to impossible due to thick layers of soot and other foreign matter. With reluctance, Steve eased his hand into the gunk and fished around. Within seconds he seized upon a small metal object mired within the contents of the chamber. He extracted the mystery object, placed it on the table, and stole a tissue from the end table. Cleaning underway, the luminous surface of the item began to show. Four tissues later, Steve had revealed the true form of the enigmatic object.
Horror brushed his skin as his gaze remained captive to the gold wedding band in his palm. His breath caught in his trachea. A need to look inside the fireplace began to rise within him. He pivoted by inches on his knees until he faced the fireplace. It gaped before him, repelling and beckoning him with simultaneous intensity. He scooted forward. When his knees met the lip of the fireplace, he paused, gripping the ring in his white-knuckled fist. He leaned into the fireplace. Not fifteen minutes ago, he had been crammed inside without hesitation. Now he held a bubble of fear in his chest, and it threatened to burst.
In the distance, the teapot continued its shrill outcry.
The fireplace was mostly clean, but a few piles of soot remained along the walls. Steve leaned in and used his free hand to shift the grime. It was sticky, as he had observed before, but the texture had taken on a new, horrific quality. His stomach lurched. In the corner he churned up a minuscule white object. He plucked it from the ashes and in an instant knew what he had found. In the same fireplace where he had vacuumed up Alan's ring, he had now found a human tooth. Nervousness exploded into panic. He screamed.
The teapot blared its ceaseless warning, good intentions morphed into death chimes. Fear transformed into paralyzing catatonia; a jewelry box revealed itself as an instrument of death.
Steve's screams mixed with the teapot. He didn't hear her sneak up on him. Steve's fear twisted as his attention zoomed to an outburst of pain in his left hamstring. He fell to his side and looked behind him.
Diane was on her knees, both hands wrenched around the source of Steve's pain. A large syringe had been plunged into his leg. He tried to kick, but the angle of his body coupled with the fireplace and the needle in his leg stymied him. Diane clenched her teeth and bore down on the syringe. Half the contents emptied into Steve's leg. He howled, cursed, and clawed, but she did not relent.
"Get the fuck off!" He reached for the lip of the fireplace to seek leverage, but his arms fell to the ground like lead.
Diane glanced at the syringe. It was empty. She released her grip and focused on pinning down Steve. He struggled, but he was slowing down. He needed to shout, but his tongue flopped in his mouth. He couldn't tell which direction was up. He was certain that his body had melted into the floor. He couldn't feel his feet. When he tried to remember what had happened, he couldn't. All he wanted was sleep.
Steve stopped moving moments later. Diane eased her grip on his legs, watchful for any movement he might make. When she was confident that he was unconscious, she rose, returned to the kitchen, and turned off the stove. The kettle, like Steve, became silent. Bathed in the silent aftermath, she returned to the den with a new item in hand. She powered on a burner cell phone and dialed a number from memory.
The receiving party picked up but did not speak. "It's done," she murmured, "but there were complications." She listened intently. "Collateral damage. A surreptitious cleanup is infeasible at this point. I need extraction." She waited. "Yes, I will await arrival. Five minutes. Confirmed." The other party disconnected.
Diane had much work to do in the next five minutes. There was gasoline in the garage. Alan had kept it close to his precious Maserati for the occasional joy ride. She retrieved both canisters and hauled them back into the house. The first canister she emptied in a line that ran from the kitchen to the foyer. The second canister she carried upstairs, spreading the fuel in a starfish pattern to all bedrooms before using nearly the entire remainder on the stairs. With only a few cups of gasoline remaining, she entered the den one last time and approached the fireplace.
She spared Steve a moment's glance. "I really wish you hadn't been so inquisitive. This wasn't the plan." With a vexed sigh, she tipped the canister over and poured the remaining gasoline on his unconscious body. She discarded the can with an indiscriminate toss. That the inspectors would determine the cause of the fire to be arson was unavoidable. Diane was concerned with erasing evidence of the two murders she would soon be guilty of committing. Her employers would not want anything traced back them. That was paramount.
She removed the matches from her dress. Without hesitation, she struck a match against the box and dropped it onto Steve's back. The gasoline caught flame, igniting his shirt and soon thereafter his pants and hair. She turned away and left him to burn. Time was running out. She lit two more matches and tossed them into the hallway and onto the stairs. She watched the flames snake down both paths. As the fire extended beyond her sight, she swung around and exited through the front door.
She crossed the gravelly driveway as an unmarked silver car zipped in and skidded to a stop. The driver did not emerge. She opened the passenger door and slid inside. As they pulled away, she spared a glance at the large house that would soon be reduced to ash.
Many hours later, firefighters quenched the final flames. Scores of men in protective gear traversed the ashen rubble. The brick chimney was all that stood, and above it lingered a dark smoke. According to the firemen, it was the blackest that they had ever seen.