AS A PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR, I’ve seen more than a fair share of strange things. In fact, the human animal is perhaps the sole source of all that is odd and bizarre in this world… perhaps.
One of my most puzzling cases began when an associate called me in for a consultation. A death had occurred, the details of which were familiar, ghastly and disturbing.
Neighbors had observed copious amounts of sooty smoke billowing from a house. Firefighters quickly arrived and entered the home.
Though the smoke was thick, there was little damage, save to the remains of a body. It had been mostly reduced to ashes, excepting a forearm and both lower legs. The blaze must have been terrific, judging by the damage to the body and the scorching on nearby objects, but the fire itself seemed to have been limited to the corpse. Officially, the death was ruled an accident, but explanations were notably lacking.
“Spontaneous human combustion,” I explained to my associate, “is a rare phenomena. The current hypothesis is called “wicking”. It’s believed that body fat acts much like lamp oil, feeding the burning clothing which acts as a wick. The body is posited to be slowly consumed, much like a candle.”
I was forced to concede the explanation was far from satisfactory. How such a process could reduce even the bones to ash, a task that normally requires the special furnace of a crematorium, was the major challenge to the wick hypothesis.
How the fire started, why it did not spread, etc. where all other valid problems the idea did not address.
And, while my career reveals a fondness for mystery, presented with this challenge, I felt wholly inadequate. I saw no way I could hope to solve a mystery that had perplexed even some of the world’s top minds. I was further displeased to have this case before me owing to a certain squeamishness at the very idea that such things could happen.
The thought that, at any moment, one might burst into flames and die a horrible and painful death, was one that I will admit unnerved me. But my associate drew my attention to a second case. The phenomena is so rare that to see another incident in the same town gave me the faintest glimmer of a hope that some progress might be made.
My suggestion was an obvious one, to seek out the connection between the two victims. While this may not illuminate the cause of the fires, it may shed some light elsewhere. Under these specific circumstances, I was forced to proceed with the notion that a third element might be involved. The connection between the victims could possibly be a means of discovering this agent.
It was not a difficult search for the link. The two had known each other well. They had gone to school together, graduating high school the same year. More recently, both had served on the board of directors of a charitable organization. I could not uncover any bad blood between them, nor between them and anyone else.
And here I must mention something personal, something that illustrates my view of the strangeness that attend us all. As an investigator, I must often listen to my intuition. For one who deals in evidence, who makes his way by reason, I admit that going on instinct is as irrational as one can be. But my gut was telling me these were not random events, and that the cause was not merely some natural force we simply don’t understand yet.
For the life of me, I swear I could sense that another person was involved. Who this was and what power or method they had at their disposal, I could not say. But the nature of the deaths made me all but certain such a presence was malign, and mad with cruelty, one yearning for a fiery revenge.
But, as I have said, I had no means of supporting such a notion. Still, during my work, I occasionally felt as though I was being watched, or my progress monitored. I even began trying to trick and trap this unseen agent, though to no avail.
When I felt those eyes upon me, I was grateful for the snub-nosed revolver I carry. More than once I woke in the night, anticipating that an assassin would burst through my hotel room door and incinerate me. One night, I even thought I saw a silhouette in the gloom, but it vanished when I threw on the light. I would come to understand, however, that I was not the only one who lived in dread of the unknown assailant.
The vast majority of my inquiries left me no closer to a solution than I had started with. I will spare the weeks of pointless interviews and conferences with police and members of the scientific community. The other board members of the charity seemed like my last chance, but one by one they all went to nothing.
All but one.
story by Joe Stanley