Track Ten, from “Soundtracks – 12 music-inspired short stories”

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Track Ten, from “Soundtracks – 12 music-inspired short stories”

Flame Red

There was always a rhythm to the flames. Red, orange, yellow, white alternated as the flaming spikes of heat danced in competition to be the first to reach the sky. They were always more vivid at night when the backdrop of a dark sky helped to define their jagged outlines and to grant them additional dimensions. Had it been a small fire in a hearth at home, Kaspar would have poked at it to rally the dancing flames when they began to tire, but this was a rather bigger blaze. He was sorry that he couldn’t get closer; close enough to feel the heat and to revel in that warmth that completed the experience for him.

The police and the fire service had closed the Costa Adeje promenade, isolating the small gift shop in its death throes. Unfortunately, the clothes shop on the level above also suffered before the blaze was brought under control. It was a still and cloudless night, the heat of the day seeping into a warm and balmy evening. He liked the way that the calm sea reflected the flames with just a small added ripple. He tried hard to include that in his photos. By midnight, the fire had lost its valiant battle with the firemen. A slow, twisting waltz of smoke had replaced the rapid and energetic tango of the flames. Kaspar went home satisfied and happy.

Kaspar’s life in Tenerife, in the small coastal town of Costa Adeje, was comfortable. The Spanish Canary Islands had a slow and captivating pace of  life, while still being in touch with the modern world. His parents had moved there from Dusseldorf five years earlier, having fallen in love with the place on previous holidays. They had considered a number of other locations for their life-changing relocation, but the combination of small-town neighbourliness, a beautiful coastline, mild weather, proximity to the bustling and lively Playa de las Americas and the convenience of the South Tenerife Airport (17km away) had all been deciding factors.

In an hour, they could be walking in the volcanic landscape of Mount Teide, the extinct volcano. That was something they did often. They were happy there. Both of his parents were writers: his mother a  novelist of moderate success, his father an author of operating manuals and technical documents for large-scale engineering installations. They were able to continue working effectively from their new home.

Kaspar loved them dearly and thought they were the most boring parents on earth. He was their only child, indulged in all things, and happy in his own company. He was a middling, quiet pupil at the Tenerife International School, but not shy or withdrawn, despite his special interests that he could not share with anyone. He was extremely capable in all things high-tech, being the go-to boy for all of his friends struggling in any way with their smartphones, laptops, notebooks, or PCs. He did have some friends, scattered throughout the dozen nationalities that attended the school, but none to whom he was close enough to share his innermost feelings or secrets. His everyday life was privileged but unremarkable; he blended in. It was his “hobby” that made him different.

Even as a baby, Kaspar had exhibited some exceptional behaviours. His parents soon noticed that he had a fascination with fire. They had to take extra precautions to ensure that he didn’t harm himself by getting too close to the flames that he loved to watch, fascinated, for long periods. By the age of ten, Kaspar had been implicated three times with unexplained fires. His parents had managed to wrangle him out of serious reprimands and more serious action. They would never admit that part of the closing argument for moving from  Germany was to extricate Kaspar and themselves from a cloud of suspicion.

Now fifteen, Kaspar’s expertise as a firestarter was considerable. He could call upon extensive knowledge of how specific materials would behave in any blaze; how long it would take for those materials to ignite and to roar into full life; how large any particular fire would grow and how long it would rage. A boy needs a hobby. Kaspar’s was arson. He had scored a dozen significant “hits” on the island, meticulously photographing each one, so as to relive the pleasure over again whenever he wished. He was what is known as a  pyromaniac.

Kaspar’s parents had done their research: pyromania is a mental health condition, arson is a crime and fire-setting is a behaviour. They discovered that a child pyromaniac is the rarest form of fire-setting. A child pyromaniac like Kaspar has an impulse-control disorder that is primarily a compulsion to set fires in order to relieve built-up tension.

A key feature of his pyromania is repeated association with fire but without a real motive. It’s more than a mere fascination or curiosity with fire, but a very rare mental disorder that occurs in only about one percent of the population. It can occur in children as young as three years old, as was the case with Kaspar, and about ninety percent of the people officially diagnosed with pyromania are male. Kaspar, sadly, ticked all of the boxes.

Pyromania involves persistent and deliberate fire-setting to relieve tension and experience pleasure when watching the aftermath of the fire. This type of fire-setting behaviour is pathological, and not criminal in intent, and though the consequences can be very serious, the pyromaniac is liable to discount them altogether to achieve his pleasure.

“πῦρ“- the Greek word pyr, meaning fire – was discreetly etched on some of  Kaspar’s possessions. It looked like scribbling to anyone who saw it, which was his intention, of course. Kaspar’s parents had considered taking him to a psychiatrist but hesitated when they realised that this would mark him permanently with suspicion whenever and wherever arson occurred.

They could not bear the thought of the potentially lifelong stigma being attached to him, no matter what. They convinced themselves that he had “grown out of it” and felt that since the move to Tenerife, his compulsions were under control.

Kaspar helped them to believe this delusion. Sometimes there might be a sidelong look toward him when a local incident occurred, but he was never subjected to any interrogation by them or anyone else. They convinced themselves that the incidents that had occurred since they had been there were far enough away from Costa Adeje so as not to implicate their precious boy, who had no transport of his own. He didn’t even ride a bike. He did, however, hide his flame-red motor-scooter really well.

Kaspar was engaged in a major project. On the outskirts of Tenerife’s southern airport was a large industrial area. He had visited there many times on his scooter, unbeknown to his parents. His father had taken him there one day when – as one of his engineering design projects – he had been asked to work on a major improvement to one of its processing systems.

Kaspar was making detailed drawings of the layout of the plant and photographing the building from the outside. It was a modern building, all in white for cooling efficiency, and of a stunted cross-shape (long north-to-south; shorter, east-to-west), with the main laboratory section in the centre. This was where the main chemical store was.

The plant received regular large consignments of liquid natural gases from the Refineria de Santa Cruz, in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, on the northern coast, near the main international airport, and the principle shipping base. It was a big refinery, serving Africa, the Americas, and the Canary Islands with over 4.8million tonnes per year, since 1930.

The chemical plant in Kaspar’s sights produced what is known as olefins (ethylene and propylene) by steam cracking of natural gas liquids like ethane and propane. The olefins are the building blocks for solvents, detergents, and adhesives. Just about everything in the plant was highly combustible. Kaspar’s pulse raced whenever he thought about it.

Kaspar’s friend Dieter had come to his house for dinner, along with his parents.  The Germans all got along well, having met through the boys’ joint attendance at the International School. The other family lived just a 25-minute walk or five-minute drive away in the lively Playa de las Americas area and had come by taxi this time. They intended to drink copiously from Herr Dreiberg’s wine cellar. Kaspar’s father had had it installed below ground in the house and kept it well-stocked with the very best wines from around the world. That was his hobby.

It was early June; a beautiful, hot evening with a light breeze. The two couples relaxed into their wine-tasting around the Dreiberg’s pool. Kaspar was driven to do some of his “project” work, despite the risk of having to explain to his friend what he was doing. Or rather, not to do so, thereby hiding his plan.

“Why are you so interested in a boring old factory?” asked Dieter, as his friend deftly manipulated his 3D CAD drawing on the large PC screen. He was using his father’s system. The computerised drawing was impressively comprehensive and detailed. Every measurement was there, and the “map view” additionally showed the few buildings on the site that were nearby. One of them was outlined in red.

I, uh, …… I’m using it as a test for my technical drawing skills”, said Kaspar. “My dad does this for a living and knows this particular place – it’s a chemical  plant, by the way, not a factory – so I had the basic plans to get it started.”

“Is that what you want to do, then, after school and stuff – be an industrial  designer, like him?”

Kaspar could think of nothing worse but replied “Yeah. That’s right. May as well carry on the family tradition, eh? His dad did the same.” 

That much was true. He didn’t want to reveal to Dieter – or his parents – that he most certainly intended to become a firefighter as soon as he was old enough. Imagine: being paid to attend fires, every day, and getting paid for it!

He shut off the PC and suggested that they play something on his PlayStation. Dieter was happy with that. It was Friday. He had the weekend to do the next part of the work, programming his phone to use as the remote controller for his drone. He found it tricky to do, especially the GPS settings.

The visiting adults staggered away into a taxi much later that evening. Kaspar had gone easy on Dieter and had let him win the game that they had played. He resisted the urge to get back to his project and went to bed, his brain buzzing; pictures of enormous flames in his head.

“Just going for a stroll down to the beach, mum”, shouted Kaspar the next morning, going quickly out of the door so as to avoid discussion or dissent.

“Okay, darling. Be careful out there; it’s so crowded now that the tourists are  here in big numbers.” She heard the door close behind him as she added, “Be home for lunch at about 2pm, please.”

Kaspar was halfway down the street by the time she said that, walking swiftly to the small lock-up behind the parade of shops at Centro Comercial Plaza del Duque on Avenue de los Pueblos. In fifteen minutes, he had donned his helmet and was underway, at peed, on his motor-scooter. He was heading for the airport industrial estate. He was a picture of hastening red, yellow, and orange, wearing his favourite bright orange Prodigy (the English electronic-punk band) T-shirt and yellow shorts, on the shining scooter with its flame-red side panels.

After he had negotiated his way out of Costa Adeje’s streets, the main road was very busy, swelled by nervous hired-car tourists going to or coming from the airport. He was a low-risk rider, unlike so many youngsters on the island, sitting contentedly behind the lines of vehicles, at moderate speed. It took him just over twenty minutes to get there. The industrial area was quiet on this steamy Saturday.

In typically Canarian, haphazardly neglectful fashion, there were many areas of unkempt weed-invaded land around the mixture of new and old – some abandoned – industrial units. Without any permissions, but without any trouble, Kaspar had secured the use of one of the abandoned buildings.

This was a large, dirty grey factory unit with only high windows, usefully unbroken because of their elevation, exposing nothing of the building’s interior. It lay directly behind the gleaming white walls of the chemical plant, just a few metres away. It had a small door-within-a-door on which he had installed an electronic lock, connected to three bolts along the door’s edge. It was very secure. He opened the door, manoeuvred his scooter inside, and locked the door behind him.

The high-level windows had been painted over, so it remained dim inside, despite the blazing sunshine. He pulled the scooter up onto its built-in stand, took off his yellow helmet, and scanned around him. There was a large, cloth-covered object in the middle of the floor.

This was the final checking day. He had, that morning, finished setting up the controller software on his smartphone and needed to check this and the timing mechanism. He grabbed the edge of the filthy old tarpaulin and – with an irresistible flourish – pulled it off to one side.

The big, industrial-grade drone sat menacingly revealed on the concrete floor. The quad-rotor machine, branded “Firefly”, all black with – of course – a large red flame logo on its central pod looked ready for business. It could carry up to a 20kg payload in its remotely triggered drop-box. Kaspar required it to carry only 10kg. 10kg of ammonium nitrate compound, the class of explosives used in mines and quarries. It had taken considerable guile and subterfuge for him to attain it, but he had managed.

The shot-firing team at a quarry puts two detonators into a primer cartridge holder, the second one as insurance against firing problems with the first. They then use either a solid wire or a wireless connection to the trigger device – like the classic “plunger” beloved of film-makers but rarely actually seen. Kaspar had followed this procedure, adding a timer so that he had the option either to trigger the detonator directly or to delay it and set it to fire in a specific interval after the payload had dropped. He had rigged the drop-box to be let go automatically after the GPS system confirmed that the Firefly had reached its exact coordinates.

For Kaspar, interesting as all of this was, and pleasant as it was to cause an explosion, it was the resultant fire that would be the high point. He would arrange to be as close as was possible to the glorious flames as the blaze took hold. He would not have to be all that close to enjoy what he calculated would be a 50-metre high display of searing, dancing glory. It was to be his thirteenth “event” on the island, but he was confident that the superstition around the number 13 was going to be “lucky for some” rather than “unlucky”. It was certainly going to be his best and biggest ever.

He had never been asked to do so, but Kaspar would not have found it easy if asked to explain to anyone how the fires made him feel. He had an uncontrollable urge to set fires and was fascinated by the blaze itself and the paraphernalia involved in making it happen. He never intended harm to anyone, nor benefited from it in any way.

He became very tense and excited when preparing or even thinking about fire-starting, always being careful to hide those feelings from others. His head swirled and ached; he would sweat and flush; his spine would seem to tingle and he would find himself gripping his fists tightly. The pleasure, the rush, the relief when igniting, and then seeing his fires were intense; an emotional release. Though he enjoyed watching them, it wasn’t the same with a fire that he had not started himself.

Afterward, emotionally drained, he also experienced some guilt if he saw reports of any distress to others that had been the result. But not for long, as he soon began to plan the next one.

Kaspar had rigged a remote opening switch to the massive skylight in the roof of the old building (getting up there had been tricky), with a remote internet link – via a router he had installed there – to his mobile phone. He need be nowhere nearby to open it for the drone to fly out.

He fastidiously made all the final checks. Leaving the tarpaulin off the shiny black Firefly, this time, he pulled the scooter out through the door again and locked up behind him. Just hours to go now, until the big event. He felt that familiar, delicious tension begin to creep over him as he roared out, a little too fast, onto the TF1 main southern highway. Thirty minutes later, he was walking nonchalantly through the door at home.

He was confident that no one would be harmed by the explosion or the fire and was indifferent to the destruction of the building and its contents. Kaspar liked precision in all things, so had set himself the target time of  8pm for the event to begin. This would be half an hour before his parents were to leave the house. They were going out for a celebratory meal; it was their wedding anniversary. He had remembered a card but had forgotten how many years this particular celebration represented.

It was important that the explosion at the chemical plant happened while he was at home with them to secure his perfect alibi. He had calculated that it would be almost an hour after the sequence began that his glorious conflagration would have reached an exciting size and the delicious flames would be leaping into the dark sky. That would give sufficient time for his parents to leave to walk to the restaurant in Playa de las Americas and for him to reach his chosen vantage point – a grassy knoll a few hundred yards from the site – from where he would revel in the fiery show.

He struggled to suppress all of the outward signs of the tension and excitement coursing through him at this imminent realisation of his project after months of preparation.

8pm: Kaspar went to his room as his parents fussed around the house, preparing to leave. Cradling his smartphone like a precious artefact, he triggered the sequence, then returned to be highly visible to his now-bickering parents. The six steps began:

    1. 17km away, the skylight on the old abandoned building opens.

    2. The drone springs to life, four rotors whirring. It checks for its payload and flies slowly, vertically, out through the skylight (exactly one metre above it) and into the night sky.

    3. The drone, red and green nav lights flashing, checks its GPS coordinates and flies a few metres to the chemical plant, hovering over the large glass ceiling of the central lab.

    4. Self-checking its target “Home”, the Firefly drone releases its carrying arms and drops its incendiary payload. The heavy drop box crashes through the glass and into the laboratory.

    5. The detonator triggers (he’d decided to go for the auto-shot firing option), exploding the ammonium nitrate package, sending a flaming solution out over a ten-metre spread in all directions. The variety of combustible materials immediately catches fire.

    6. The drone flies at high speed to destination “Home2”, dropping itself deep into the sea, a mile off the southern coast.

He was sorry to sacrifice the powerful flying machine but knew it was sensible to do so. No one would even know where the explosive materials had come from. Kaspar felt that he might himself explode with anticipation as he waved his parents off down the path.

“Yes. Don’t worry; I’ll be fine. Have a nice time. Get a taxi home.” 

8.35pm: The teenaged bundle of anticipation left the house and began to walk quickly down the hill to the lock-up. He got the motor-scooter out onto the road and began to put on his helmet, cursing the fiddly straps. He hesitated. Looking upwards towards the slight buzz that he had heard, he saw the dark shape, flying low across the horizon, its red and green nav lights flashing. The shape moved steadily across the black and starlit sky in front of him and came to a halt at the top of the hill from where he had just walked.

“Oh no!”, he gasped, realising what he was looking at. “How…….” His thoughts were blown to a halt by a loud bang. He practically threw the scooter back into the lock-up and began to run up the road. A red glow began to warm the night sky ahead of him. The drone – his drone, he now knew – sped off southwards at speed, towards the coast, lights still merrily flashing.

“I must have not recalibrated the GPS coordinates”, he panted, still running up the hill, “I did it at home and it automatically took that location as the target “Home” – my own house.”

His house was blazing beautifully as he reached the end of his path. The fire had taken hold more quickly than he would have anticipated, bearing in mind the absence of any chemicals. “Mmmh, interesting. Obviously the part-wooden construction and the soft furnishings. Note to self about that.”

He sat on a low wall across the road from the house, the hypnotising effect of his favourite scenario beginning to take hold of him. “Nice yellows. Some purple in there, too. And here come those orange darts around the edges. Lots of smoke; those soft furnishings, I guess.”

The tension in his body began to leave him as he relaxed into his ringside viewing. He took his camera from the pocket of his red windcheater jacket and began to snap away as people from neighbouring houses ran into the street and the approaching fire engines’ sirens wailed into the night.

Inspired by “Fire”, by The Crazy World of Arthur Brow.

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