Out of the Ashes
M.J. James © 2019
All Rights Reserved
Black, billowing smoke splattered the night sky like paint on a canvas long before Alex reached the tiny bookstore he owned and loved more than anything. The glow of streetlamps skittered over the car’s windshield as he sped through the quiet streets of Cliffside, Maine, the idyllic town he called home. Their measured illumination tossed shadows across the interior of his sedan. He zipped past darkened storefronts and empty parking lots, praying he wouldn’t get pulled over because he didn’t have time to try to haggle his way out of a ticket. His life teetered on the edge, and he was desperate to stop the fall.
He had worked tirelessly to turn the shop into something he could be proud of, and now all his efforts were going up in flames. Even as a little boy he had dreamed of having his own business, and his intense love of the written word was the perfect motivation. For almost three years, it was his lifeline. Now, after a midnight phone call from the local police, said lifeline would be forever severed… He couldn’t even comprehend what was happening.
“No, no, no…” His protests faded away when he turned onto Shemwood Drive. The historic brownstone was blazing red-hot, thick black smoke pluming into the night-time sky. “NO!” He slammed the silver sedan into Park and leapt from the car, leaving the engine running and the headlights on. Smoke swirled in the light of their beams like venomous snakes on the prowl as he raced across the street toward the fire, heat blasting him in the face with every inch closer he got. He winced but charged forward.
“Stay back!” A firefighter approached as he headed for the roaring blaze. He stared at her, wide-eyed, the large shield attached to her helmet teetering above her head, the orange glow of flames reflecting off the shiny surface.
“This is my store!” he yelled at the petite blonde woman now standing between him and the fire. She gripped his arm like a vise when he tried to sidestep her, and he snatched free. “Let me go.”
“I don’t care. You’re not going in there.” She yelled to be heard over the roar of the inferno churning behind them. Alex’s determination faltered between the rumble and heat of the fire and the woman blocking him. “What the hell are you gonna do, anyway?”
“I…” What was he going to do, put out the fire with his bare hands?
“Step back!” She pushed against his chest and he skittered backward. She then turned her attention to the other firefighters manhandling a hose clearly losing the battle as it spewed water on the Book Nook.
“My God.” Alex ran his hands through his hair, his emotions like a caged animal, trying to claw their way out. Frustration and anger swirled among the panic settling into his chest and he gritted his teeth to keep from losing control. This couldn’t be happening. It just couldn’t. He tugged at the tie around his neck to try to ease the suffocating feeling in his throat and undid the top button of his shirt. He sucked in a deep breath and held his breath until his chest began to ache and throb before forcing all the air out, letting some of the dread twisting his stomach go with it. He had spent the majority of the night at his shop, hosting a pretty successful author signing and then cleaning up afterward, and all he had wanted to do was go home and relax. One phone call and his plan was literally up in smoke.
He wanted to scream, hit something, shatter into a million pieces right there in the street because everything was gone.
All those books, the artwork created by kids in the neighborhood during Saturday story times… Everything was burning.
His life was gone.
The pain of the realization swept over Alex like dense, choking fog, consuming him, turning him inside out. He sat on the curb across the street from his store, a thick huddle of sightseers from the bar on the corner now crowded together behind him, ogling the scene like vultures over roadkill. He could hear their “ohs” and “my Gods” and the words were making him sick. Sick because there was nothing he could do to stop them. Stop their taunting and awe and shock. He couldn’t stop any of it. The fire, the onlookers, the pity pulsing all around him; he could do nothing.
Nothing but stand there and watch as the life he had worked so hard to build turned to ashes right before his eyes.
After a long night of standing powerless on the sidelines while his life burned, Alex finally gave up and headed home—even though he wanted to do the exact opposite. He wanted to stay. Fix things. Turn his life upright again. How could he just walk away when the only thing important to him was gone? But he did. He left. Went home. He was a zombie as he peeled off his smoke-drenched clothes and sat naked in his living room, burying his erratic emotions in more than a few glasses of vodka and cranberry. Once his mind was good and chemically altered, he stumbled to his bedroom at the back of the house and collapsed into bed, falling asleep just as daylight began to peek through the curtains. He woke an hour later to incessant pounding on his front door and dragged himself out of bed, his head pounding like a thousand drums. He snagged a pair of boxers from the floor and slipped them on as he rubbed sleep from his eyes and wound his way through the house, using walls and furniture to stay upright.
“Yeah?” Alex swung the door open wide, the low sun blasting his face like pepper spray, almost blinding him. He lifted a hand to shield his eyes and fought to focus. “Oh, Sorry. Good morning, officers.”
Two stern-faced uniforms stared back at him, both with their legs shoulder-width apart and backs awkwardly straight in an overly masculine TV cop fashion. Alex wanted to laugh at how ridiculous they looked but held back. Their presence didn’t feel like a joke. Police at your door first thing in the morning didn’t typically scream social call.
“Mr. Porter?” The woman spoke first, her tone more a statement than a question.
“That’s me. Are you here about the fire?”
“We are, sir. Could you come down to the station, please? Answer a few questions for us?”
“Questions?” Alex’s gut lurched. “What questions?”
“Standard in this type of thing, sir. We need to find out what happened last night.”
“Yes, you do. But I don’t see why you need to question me. I wasn’t even there.”
“Then you’ll have nothing to worry about.” The woman shifted on her feet, and Alex noticed her grip tighten on the Glock at her side.
“Wait a minute…do I need a lawyer?” His stomach turned, like at any second his already obliterated life was about to get much, much worse.
“Do you have a reason to need a lawyer, Mr. Porter?” The male officer spoke this time, pulling Alex’s attention from the agitated woman. The man was good-looking, what some might even call hot, but all Alex could see was the accusation hidden beneath his words.
“Sure sounds like I might.” Every nerve in Alex’s body was screaming at him, putting him on edge. He had seen enough true crime television and episodes of Law and Order: SVU to know how things like this typically played out.
“Well that’s certainly up to you,” the male officer said. “Either way, we need you to come with us.”
He didn’t want to—he wanted to slam the door in their faces and crawl back into bed and forget the last twelve hours even happened—but Alex knew he had no choice. If he didn’t go with them willingly, they would just make him. His neighbors would see him dragged off in cuffs and the entire town would know what happened before he even arrived at the station. He ran a hand through his hair and huffed.
“Fine,” he said, stepping out of the doorway and onto the porch. A cold northern wind swept around them, but Alex was too upset to care.
“Um, sir?” The female officer gestured toward him, and Alex stopped.
He lowered his hand from above his eyes as he moved to the side and, to block the sun, stepped into the shadow cast by one of the large columns flanking the porch steps. “Yes?”
She glanced over at her partner who nodded to Alex’s lower half. “You might wanna get dressed.”
Though he had slipped them on only a minute ago, Alex had forgotten he had answered the door in nothing but a pair of black boxer briefs.
He darted back inside and stood behind the door. “I think I’ll need a minute.” Both officers nodded as he stepped away from the door and headed back to his bedroom. He was wide awake now, embarrassment and fear jolting his mind. He got dressed in record time, throwing on some jeans, a T-shirt, and a pair of old sneakers while trying not to dwell on what would no doubt happen once he got to the police station. How in the world was any of this happening?
First, he lost his store, and now…what, he was about to be grilled by the police? Maybe even arrested? No, the officers standing at his door didn’t come right out and admit anything, but Alex knew they suspected him. Even the simplest mind would only take a second to realize it made sense to think he burned down his own place, but that didn’t help quell his uneasiness. By the time he locked the house and crammed into the back of the police cruiser, his hangover had moved from his head to his stomach, and he had to fight to keep from throwing up.
“Okay, Mr. Porter, let’s go over this again.” A detective sat across from Alex in one of those dull gray rooms seen in every police interrogation scene in every movie and cop show on TV, nothing but a nondescript metal table and two matching chairs occupying the space. And, of course, the wall-sized mirror no one with any measure of common sense would ever believe wasn’t see-through. “You say you left your shop about eleven thirty, right?”
Alex fought hard to remain presentable. He sat tall and kept his shoulders back even though his body ached from the neck down; he had been sitting there close to an hour. “Yes. Like I said earlier, the book signing was over around nine, maybe nine thirty, and I left a couple of hours later after I cleaned up the place. I didn’t check my watch, but eleven thirty seems accurate.” He was frustrated—beyond frustrated—because on top of losing everything he had worked so hard to own, now he had to deal with the beady, disbelieving glare from this half-rate detective.
“And you received a call from dispatch around midnight?” the officer continued. Alex nodded. “Please speak your responses, Mr. Porter.” The man tapped the short microphone sitting on the table between them, a dull thrum bouncing around the room.
Alex rolled his eyes but leaned forward a bit and cleared his throat. “Yes,” he said. “I received a call from someone here, notifying me of the fire. I had stopped to get gas once I reached Main Street, so I wasn’t too far away. I turned around and went straight back. I stayed there until the fire was out, then went home. To be crudely blunt… I got shitty drunk as soon as I got home and passed out. Then your officers woke me up extremely early this morning and dragged me down here. There…all caught up?”
The detective seemed unfazed by Alex’s display, his face stoic. His lack of reaction set Alex’s nerves ablaze.
“Am I missing something?” Alex asked with a shrug of his shoulders. “Why are you staring at me?”
The detective took his time answering. “Because I’m confused, Mr. Porter.”
“Confused? What is there to be confused about?”
“Well…” Another long pause. Alex could almost taste the man’s loftiness. “I’m confused, because we have no record of a phone call made to you from here. In fact—” the detective rummaged through the thin stack of papers “—your number has never been called from this precinct.”
Now Alex was the one confused. Shock seized his muscles, his nerves, his ability to focus.
No phone call? How?
He shook his head. “No. No… That’s impossible. Someone called me. A female officer. She told me my shop was on fire, and I needed to get there as fast as I could.”
“She?” The detective scribbled in the notebook in front of him. “The officer was female?”
“Yes. And she clearly stated she was with the Cliffside Police Department. So, unless there’s a secret one in town no one knows about, this has to be the one, this office.”
The detective made more notes before looking up. “So, even though I can’t find a single person, male or female, in this entire building who remembers calling you only a few hours ago, you’re still sticking with your story?”
“This isn’t a story, Detective. I’m telling you the truth. So, yes, I am ‘sticking with it,’ as you say. Feel free to search my phone if you believe I’m lying.” Alex pulled his cell phone from his pocket and unlocked the screen before sliding it across the table. The detective scooped up the phone and skimmed through the contents, writing on his notepad again.
“I see you did, in fact, receive a call at five till midnight, but it wasn’t from here.” He placed the phone on the table in front of Alex. “Care to tell me who the call was from, Mr. Porter?”
Alex bit his tongue until he tasted blood. Don’t blow this, don’t you dare.
“I’ve already told you,” he said through gritted teeth. “The person claimed to be a police officer. From this police station.” The detective crossed his arms and smirked, and Alex’s frustration quadrupled. He fought the urge to cause a scene, he was so exasperated. “You know what, Detective—”
The door to the now claustrophobic room swung open and a slender, graying man in an expensive suit strode in. “Not another word, Alex.” The man stopped when he reached the table and dropped a briefcase onto the cold metal surface. “I know you’re not interrogating my client without me, Detective Singer. Right?”
Detective Singer half smiled. “No interrogating here, counselor. Simply having a conversation. Right, Mr. Porter?” Alex didn’t respond.
“Well, suffice it to say this ‘conversation’ is over.” The man didn’t budge, staring down Singer for several tense seconds before the detective stood up from the table and left the room in silence. Alex couldn’t help but smile. Score one for him; a nice change of pace, given recent events. Once they were alone, the man took a seat across from Alex and promptly switched off the microphone.
“Thank you,” Alex stated. “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but…Who are you? I know you’re not my attorney. I don’t have one.”
The man smiled as he opened his briefcase and fished out some papers. “You do now.”
“With all due respect, Mr.?”
“My name is William Stone, Alex. I’m with the firm Stone and Saber. In Bangor. I work for your mother.”
Alex was shaking his head again. “Thank you, but no thank you, Mr. Stone. I believe I would rather take my chances on my own.”
“I’m afraid this isn’t really your call. As I said, I work for your mother. And even though I’m representing you, and you will be afforded all the rights and privileges that come with attorney-client relationships, you don’t have the authority to hire or fire me. Those privileges belong to Mrs. Porter.”
“I don’t have the right to release my own attorney? That can’t be legal.”
William smiled as he pored over the papers but said nothing.
Alex laughed at the situation and sat back in his chair. “My mother. She is… Well, she is certainly something else, isn’t she?”
His mother. Evelyn Porter. Since birth, she had been controlling Alex’s life in every way she could. Alex had used everything he had in him to break free from her control, to get out from under her rich but extremely heavy thumb and make something for himself. And now, in a matter of hours, she had managed to root her way back into his life again. This infuriated him to no end.
“I won’t pretend to know or understand the relationship you have with your mother, Alex,” William said. “That isn’t my place. What is my place, however, is to see to the welfare of my clients. And since you’re now my newest client, I will make certain all of this goes away quietly.”
“Ah, there it is. Of course.” Alex stared at William for a few seconds before continuing. “You’re here for damage control. To make sure the famous Porter name doesn’t get tarnished by a fire-starting criminal like me. Am I right, Mr. Stone?”
William clasped his hands together on the table and stared back at Alex almost to the point of awkward before saying, “My job, Mr. Porter, is to ensure you are treated fairly and justly. And if somehow this process ends with criminal charges being brought against you, my job will then be to do everything in my power to defend you. I promise nothing more or less.”
“Please, allow me to clarify for myself.” Alex cleared his throat. “Even though I didn’t ask for an attorney—especially one from my mother—it seems as though I am…stuck with you. Correct?” His lawyer nodded. “Well. This is perfect.”
William looked up from his paperwork just as the door swung open again and Alex’s day from hell went from bad to a thousand times worse.
“Jesus.” He dropped his hands into his lap and gave in to the unstoppable. “Like I said. Perfect.”
“You’ll remember to watch your tone, young man.” A much older woman stepped into the room and stood next to William on the opposite side of the table.
Even though he wanted with every fiber of his being to curl into a ball in the corner of the room and disappear, Alex instead bit back his rage and regained his composure. The muscles in his back seized up in protest, but he wouldn’t allow the pain to show through. No chance he was going to let his mother see just how much she got to him. He swallowed his pride and forced the same fake smile he gave every time she was around. He knew there was no point in fighting her; she always got her way.