I have always wanted to be a drag queen.
Though I suppose always is a big word. From the moment I saw my first live show though, I knew it was something I wanted to do. But wanting something and being something exist in their own universes. First of all, I have no rhythm. I can’t dance. It’s not that I’m bad; I freeze on the dance floor. I’m also tragically masculine, and I’m not sure any amount of contouring is going to change that.
So I became a cop. Maybe those are related and maybe they’re not, but I explain it all to Oliver, the bartender I’m obsessing over. Everyone else in our little dive is at the stage singing and dancing along to Annette Fairness’s rendition of a Taylor Swift song I vaguely recognize—a deep cut, for sure. I like that about Annette. By day, a philosophy undergrad at the University of Pittsburgh, by night a femme fatale with in-jokes only she’s aware of. Judging by the bills in the air, she’s doing alright tonight. I’ve taken to worrying about her ever since she performed Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.” No one danced to that one, but Annette stood her ground, reciting each line of the poem in her affected voice she uses for the stage.
I went straight to the ATM and withdrew a hundred dollars.
When I met her at the bar later that evening and held the money out in my hand, she just looked at it and said, “Don’t pity me.”
I told her I would never.
She then took the money and asked, “How much if I do it again? These swine are so uncultured I’m not sure I could.” She feigned weakness, lolled her head back.
I think I fell in love with her then.
I tell the bartender this too. I’m rambling a bit because he has an ACAB button on the lapel of his gray hoodie.
He’s also killed four people.
The latter fact he’s not exactly wearing on his sleeve. He doesn’t even know that I know. He probably doesn’t remember that I’m a cop. Some people claim they can spot one, but I don’t think that’s fair. I think a lot of people are good at spotting white men with authority issues. I didn’t get into the game for the power, so I can usually fly under the radar. Besides, we’re dressed nearly the same. Gray hoodies, blue jeans, tennis shoes. Here at the bar, away from Annette’s show, I can see all of his features clearly in the harsh, fluorescent lights bouncing off the bottles of liquor. I’m sure he can see all mine just as well. It’s refreshingly intimate, for a hole in the wall.
“Do you really think so?” I ask, nodding toward his button.
“What?” he says. His attention elsewhere, not on the show but somewhere above it.
“That all cops are bastards.”
“Why you’re not one are—” he interrupts his own speech to look at me, really look at me. He scrunches his face in a way that makes him boyish, cute even. He’s contorted it such that I can’t imagine it’s actually conducive to thought, but suddenly he says, “Wait a minute. You’re that detective, the one who caught the Cloud Killer.” He’s all sweetness and light now.
“That’s me. My fifteen minutes of fame and I couldn’t even get a killer with a good name.” It had been my first big case. I was on the news. I’m certain Oliver, the surfer hunk from LA behind the bar hadn’t moved to Pittsburgh yet. While the whole drama did gain some national attention, it would seem that my newest preoccupation had done his homework on me.
“I’m sorry, man. I do believe in systemic racism and police brutality and that something needs to change, but I don’t think you personally are bad.”
There’s still no indication he recalls my name. A fact that would have irked me three weeks ago when our only interactions had been me unsuccessfully trying to flirt. But I’m playing a much different game now.
“Name’s Hunter,” I say, “and I’m just giving you a hard time. Truth is, I think all cops are bastards too.”
“Sure. To be fair, I think all people are bastards too.” He looks at me confused, so I continue. “I’m not suggesting we’re all evil. Just self-interested.”
He considers this. “But everyone can’t be objectively bad.”
“Of course not,” I say. “The idea of bad is subjective anyway. I’d rather admit to being bad while striving to do good than do things that are universally acknowledged as being bad, like stealing or murder. Even with those we could likely come up with scenarios where our actions are at least subjectively good.”
“Do I need to cut you off? I’ve never heard a cop rationalize murder before.” He’s no longer just sweet; he’s saccharine. The playful way he asks if he needs to cut me off does a number on my stomach. I try to act cool.
“We do it all the time,” I say and point to his button again. “But as long as there’s a death penalty, it’s not just the cops doing the rationalizing.”
“Okay,” he says, getting into the discussion, and I really wish I didn’t have ulterior motives because this is starting to feel flirtatious. “What about the arsons last month? I can’t conceive of even one reason anyone would think that was subjectively good. I mean those fires killed what? Three people?”
“Four,” I say and then I’m stunned to silence. All the verbal foreplay I had imagined—even rehearsed—to get him to talk about the fires and here he is bringing them up himself. I’m beginning to worry we’re playing two separate games.
He fills in my silence by doubling down. “I can’t imagine why anyone would do something like that.” Now he’s just taunting me. I can’t say for certain if he likes the idea that I’m really dumb or that he’s really smart, but he’s getting some good mileage out of all his dental work. Not fully prepared at this point, I try to keep my response ambiguous. “I’m more of a ‘how am I gonna catch him’ than an ‘oh how could you!’ type of guy.”
He leans in close. “And how are you going to catch him?” I can smell his cologne and even the hint of mintiness off his breath. Bottle it all up and it’d be called “Ocean Lodge.” I can only hope that my entire demeanor is that icy when I say, “Don’t worry about that. I already have.”
The bar goes silent. The bartender and I will not take our eyes off each other even though the lights are dimming. My periphery detects the spotlight now shining down on Annette. I’m sure she looks gorgeous, but I’m a tad irritated with what I know is coming next. Then I hear her voice from the other side of the bar, patrons heading back our way because the exciting part of the show is over. “You do not do. You do not do. / Any more, gumshoe…” When she switches out the words black shoe for gumshoe in the opening lines of Plath’s poem, I know she’s speaking directly to me. She knows no one else will notice she’s changed the words. She’s somehow sensed I’m treading on thin ice.
I place a twenty on the bar. “Looks like I’ve got to hit up the ATM,” I say. “I’ll see ya around.”
Then he winks at me. I turn around and smile, a huge, uncharacteristic grin. The giddiness of courtship is taking over. I try not to think about the breakup.
If I’m being honest, I shouldn’t have figured it out. Or at least not the way I did. If life were a game and my cracking the case only came down to a tally in the win or lose column, then this would be a win, but not one I was going to feel particularly proud of.
First, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I usually frequent Aunt Elijah’s, a bar in Regent’s Square, the one with drag nights and the cute bartender who’s mostly straight but sometimes goes home with a lucky patron. I never got lucky, but he also set people on fire so you could say I dodged a bullet.
Then we had a small lead on the first arson. A neighbor said she’d noticed a strange vehicle in the days preceding the incident. Unfortunately, that only got us a dark four-door sedan and a partial plate, but it was a start.
Finally, the big break came. Or in this case the clue that both solved everything and made me feel completely powerless, like going to put in the final piece to a jigsaw puzzle only to realize your fingers are missing. After the fourth arson, and death, a new witness produced a sketch of a person of interest. The media in conjunction with the Pittsburgh Police Department distributed the photo all along the three rivers. Our own pyromaniac was not going to get away with it. Problem was I recognized that face instantly. Probably because I thought he was hot and had been spending my off hours when not worried about the arsonist wondering how I was going to get this guy to come home with me and light my fire. Life’s funny like that.
Obviously to any rational person all of that taken together would seem like too much of a coincidence, and I was no exception. Until I saw Oliver after the photo was released. He’d cut his hair. Our very own LA surfer dude had cut off his locks and now, even though the black-and-white artist’s rendering was pretty vague and looked like most crazy white men who would hurt people, he didn’t look anything like it. Except for the ears. I tend to notice people’s ears first. I guess I have a thing for them. The important part is that I recognized him, and if our bartender did have a side hustle as a firestarter, then the witness had nailed the ears. The hair too for what it was worth. The rest a tad too Picasso-esque for him to get caught by anyone else probably. Like I said, life’s funny like that.
So I ran his name. Oliver Kovach. 28. Drives a 2010 BMW 335i. Four Doors. Black. One letter and one of the two plate numbers matched. One didn’t. But the witness had given us a 0 where Kovach had an 8. It was good enough for me. And it was good enough for my boss to order round-the-clock surveillance. The arsonist we were after had done four fires in about six months, the last two being three weeks apart. So we waited. And waited. And waited.
Then a fire, a huge one, in Glen Hazel—while two rookies were camped out in front of Kovach’s place. So it couldn’t have been my guy. No deaths though and that bugged me, big time. I expressed my concerns to my superiors, but no one would hear it.
I explain all this to Dana Noll, who moonlights as Annette Fairness but should have called herself Nana Doll, while we split a crunchy roll off the center console of my F-150 outside of Kovach’s place the day before he will debut “Daddy” for the second time.
“So what you’re saying is there’s a good chance he’s innocent and you just want to spy on him?” Dana asks. He wipes away a spot of orange mayonnaise from the corner of his lip with his pinky.
“No, I’m saying there’s a good chance he’s guilty and no one will listen because it sounds made up. All the fires take place within a two-mile radius of his house. He looked like the sketch until he cut his hair, and yes, I’ve tried posting it around the office with the hair gone, and that worked for maybe a day. He drives a dark four-door sedan and the partial plate matches. Sorta. He’s the freaking duck,” I say and slam my hands on the steering wheel in exasperation.
Dana seems unimpressed by my passion. I suppose I may have been trying to oversell it with the tantrum. “Okay, I get it. He’s your trout in the milk. But it’s been, what, three weeks since the last fire? Maybe he’s stopped,” Dana says. “Even if it is him.”
I shake my head. “He won’t stop. But I’ve spent every waking moment I can tailing him and nothing.” Honestly, I’m running out of steam, and hope. “Thanks for coming with me tonight by the way. I’m glad someone believes me.”
“First, I don’t believe you. I believe in you. There’s a difference there I’m not sure you’re capable of grasping right now. Second, this is my new dissertation. No matter what happens, the moral and ethical implications of everything connected with this case and you are fascinating.”
“Thanks,” I say, mockingly. “I thought you liked me.”
“Let’s just say this is more business than pleasure. You’re easy enough on the eyes, Hunter, but, Jesus, can you imagine? We’d be a walking advertisement for homosexual normalization. Oh, Hunter and Dana? They’re the gay starter model. Perfect for the queers wanting to play house.”
Before I can respond, Kovach takes a bag of trash out to his dumpster. “You think we should steal it?” Dana asks.
“What? His garbage? You think we’re going to find matches or something?”
“I don’t know? Don’t you guys normally do that sort of thing? Maybe he’s shredded evidence, and we can tape it together over takeout and chardonnay.”
I laugh and grab another roll of sushi between my travel chopsticks. “If I thought that bag had shredded bits of paper and you’d come over to my place and get drunk trying to put them together, I’d dive into that dumpster in a heartbeat.”
“I guess it isn’t meant to be then,” Dana says and adjusts his seat so that he’s lying back. He puts his knuckles to his front teeth. “So having exhausted all the cliches, what’s the next move, detective?”
“I think we’re going to have to play house,” I say and pop the last roll into my mouth.
The plan wasn’t airtight. No fourth-and-long plan ever can be. While I lived in an apartment building in Squirrel Hill, I had recently purchased a tiny cabin just east of Derry near Laurel Ridge State Park. It wasn’t much, but I had wanted someplace to get away. Turned out having a second property is a lot like having a pool—you want it until you have it and then you just have to keep it up. In the case of a cabin, the latter part is quite literal.
“He won’t attack me in the apartment. His fires appear to be more intimate than that,” I told Dana after we left Kovach’s place for the evening. “But he might try if I’m at the cabin. It’s isolated and virtually made of kindling.”
“And why should he attack you?”
“Because tomorrow night, I’m going to let him know that I know what he’s done.”
“And that’s going to make him set you on fire, why? I understand that you think he’s a psychopath, but if he’s stopped, why would he risk getting caught?”
I had considered this. I’d even contacted a friend at the Bureau who worked in behavioral sciences. “From what I’ve been told, arsonists have a few distinct motives. We can safely eliminate a few just by the victimology alone. These aren’t likely to be cases of revenge, since there’s more than one victim and they don’t appear to be related, nor are they cases of destruction for its own sake, since there’s a homicidal component. Of the big ones, that leaves some sort of tension relief or attention-seeking behavior. Either way, I think I can prod him into action.”
“And what am I supposed to do besides watch?”
“In all the prior cases, he used an accelerant to get the fires to burn hot. Gasoline primarily, some special mix. I need someone to watch over my house at night. I’m willing to be bait, but I don’t want to be a meal. He’d likely try to catch me unaware, and as much as I’ll be ready, I need someone to watch the house.” Dana looked skeptical. I’d never been able to convince him to go out to dinner with me; I wasn’t sure what made me think I could get him to watch me sleep.
“Hunter, I’m worried about you. What if this is a wild goose chase? You could just be harassing some poor straight guy, and while I find that perversely appealing, I want to be cognizant of the line between having fun with you and stalking someone.”
“Listen, at least this way we’re moving to watching my house.” Dana still had the skeptical look on his face, but it was mellowing. Pity might not get me a date, but it might get me this. “How about seven days. You watch my house for seven days, and if nothing happens, I’ll pack up and move back to the apartment and stop the stakeouts.”
“Okay, but only if you pay my next month’s rent. I need some new makeup.”
“If this works, I’ll give you anything you want.” And I meant it.
“In that case, let’s go home and get ready for the big day tomorrow. You need to rehearse.”
“What do you mean?”
“If you want this guy to release his tension by setting your house on fire, then you’re going to need to come up with a script. You’re pretty good at coming on strong and looking handsome, but if you want to compel him, and I mean really mesmerize him, into potentially getting caught, then you need to work on your foreplay.” Dana gently touched the stubble of my cheek with the back of his hand as we drove down the road. The gesture was so unexpected I took my foot off the gas for a moment. “You’ll need to do this, without touching him.” He leaned in closer and whispered in my ear, “Get him to talk about the fire because he needs to. He does need it, you know.”
The engine revved as I placed pressure back on the gas. Dana lurched forward away from my ear. “Okay. Okay. I get it. I need to be seductive bait.”
“That’s my worm,” Dana said and told a story about Kierkegaard all the way back to his apartment.
While I was annoyed, he interrupted me the next night, he said he could sense things weren’t exactly going to plan. “You had that ‘coming on too strong’ look,” he said. We were in the back room. He was getting out of drag and I was giving him a hundred bucks. “The one where your jaw clenches. It makes your face handsomely angular, but it does funny things to your brain.” He took the money and put it in his backpack. I couldn’t help notice the school books. He caught me spying. “If I’m going to sit out in front of your house all night on some half-cocked, unauthorized idea of a sting operation, I’m doing homework. Besides, I have a plan.” He handed me a pair of walkie talkies. “I’ve rigged this one up so that when you’re ready to call it a night, you can keep the button collapsed and it’ll act like a baby monitor.”
The first night was anticlimactic.
The second and third nights, I couldn’t sleep and would just talk out loud to the walkie, knowing Dana could hear me.
The fourth night I smelled the gasoline.
Oddly enough, I didn’t recognize it right away. The odor in the air didn’t permeate the room exactly. It lingered faintly like a perfume, and smell being one of the best triggers for memory, it reminded me of afternoons with my grandpa on his farm, his hands always smelling like gas. Those crucial seconds meant I didn’t notice the figure sitting in the recliner I had just walked by. The figure that hit me in the back of the neck and forced me to the couch.
I didn’t recognize him for a minute either. The figure before me had covered himself head to foot in some sort of jumpsuit that looked to be made of gauze, but it shined, oily and slick. Even the head was covered. Only his eyes remained and they were Kovach’s alright. Aquamarine. Distracting.
Though I couldn’t see his mouth, I could definitely hear him speak. “Stay there on the couch. Don’t make any moves. Or poof.” The last bit he said while producing a Zippo. I couldn’t even conceive of what moves I was going to make anyway. We’d just come back from grabbing a bite to eat and because I didn’t win the Junior Allegheny Riflemen competition when I was twelve, I tend to leave my weapon at home when not on official police business. The only thing I had was the walkie, and I hadn’t enabled it to be one-way yet. As if reading my mind, Kovach said, “And toss over the walkie too. Let’s not involve the little lady just yet.”
“If you use that, we’ll both burn,” I said, but he just laughed and I began to process why he might be covered in goop. He pulled down a pair of googles I hadn’t noticed from the top of his head. “Maybe, but I’ve had a lot of practice. Out in LA, I did some stunt work. There’s all sorts of ways to protect yourself from fire if you have a plan.”
I didn’t want to start panicking, but the disadvantages of the situation began piling up in my head. “If you do this, they’ll know it was you.”
The monster Kovach had transformed into in front of me nodded his head. “Sure. Sure. Except not after this sole survivor explains how you and the little twink outside kidnapped me to frame me, to prove yourself right. You’re obsessed and everyone knows it.”
“Dana doesn’t need to be any part of this.”
Kovach yelled back, “Dana became a part of this when you parked him outside. He’s complicit because you involved him.”
He had a point. None of this was by the book, but I knew I had to keep my head clear. I had to keep him talking. For Dana, I needed to not come on too strong just this once. If I could keep Kovach talking for a while longer, maybe I could come up with an escape plan—or at least warn Dana not to run in when he saw the fire.
“But why? Why the fires?”
“Because they’re beautiful,” he said in a tone suggesting I was an idiot. “If you only knew what it was like to watch a whole life burn, not just the body, but all of the possessions. It’s quite something. And now, you can experience it firsthand. It might be beautiful from your vantage too. I’ve never tried it myself.” He lifted his hand up and lit the wick of the lighter. The flame danced in the drafts of the cabin. Before he could drop it however, Dana yelled, “Hey, asshole,” from the back door of the cabin. Followed by, “You bulletproof too?” He held a gun on Kovach, who was turning in his direction as Dana fired at the lighter. The bullet impossibly missed the lighter by millimeters but extinguished the flame. However, in the time it took us all to collect our thoughts and breaths, the flame had reignited on the fluid-soaked cotton of the Zippo. It hadn’t gone out; it had just gone down.
Before either Dana or I could react, Kovach dropped the lighter to the floor. A line of flame painted its way toward me. I knew the couch was soaked, so I stood up as quickly as I could. Oliver Kovach’s advantage over his victims was that he was fireproof. If they tried to move, he could just hold them down for mere seconds before the pain of being burned alive would shatter any resistance. I’m sure that was part of the appeal of his game too. And I undoubtedly would have asked him had Dana not shot him as he ran toward me. The bullet took Kovach down while a line of flame danced up my back. Some of the accelerant must have transferred. Dana screamed at me and ran in my direction to get me out the front door. Before we were all the way out, I saw the flames licking the body on the floor of my cabin, and for the briefest of moments, I understood what Kovach had been talking about. There really was a certain beauty in the flames.
I didn’t have time to ruminate on any of that though before Dana threw me on the ground and stamped on my back. The chilly night air and the smell of fire once again reminded me of the farm, the summer nights, the bonfires and hot dog roasts. I laughed until I cried.
I’m telling all this to the new bartender at Aunt Elijah’s. He’s cute in that straight naive way the bartenders around here seem to be. He’s not LA though. He’s Pittsburgh all the way through—dark tousled hair, pale skin, and an accent that sounds like he’s perpetually irritated by something. Annette’s on stage, and she’s just started Stevie Nicks’s “Rooms on Fire.” I have no idea how she queues up her stuff so perfectly, but I can’t help imagine she’s doing this one for me too. Another reminder to slow down. I’m thinking about this when the new bartender asks incredulously, “But how did Annette know to come in when she did and where did that gun come from?”
I answer the second part truthfully. “Annette won the Junior Allegheny Riflemen competition when she was twelve. Still carries a gun. Not sure which philosopher she uses to justify it, but I’m sure she’d give you an earful if you asked.” The first part I decide to lie about by omission. “And she said she noticed something was wrong and went to check it out.” In truth, I had asked her the same question. To which she had responded, “Hunter, I’ve told you before that you’re boring and predictable. That’s why I like you and why I won’t go out with you. In this case, it saved your life. Once you didn’t drone on and on into that walkie within ten minutes of getting in the door, not to mention not turning on your porch light, I knew something was wrong and I went to see what.”
“That’s amazing. And to think that no one believed you. Too bad about your cabin though,” he says. “I love the outdoors.”
“Great. You’ll have to come check out the new one then,” I say because while the old one was a money pit that I regretted getting into, the new one will be all new construction with a firepit out back, if I can stomach one by then. When you’re certain a firebug might be onto you and you’re doing your damnedest to trap him, you up the coverage on your properties and put your collectibles in storage. Perks of the job.
“Definitely,” he says and goes to take another drink order at the end of the bar.
Annette’s moved onto a new song, and I decide to hit up the ATM anyway. I join the dancers up front while she does her number. I sway to the music, careful at first not to bump too close to anyone, but then I see Annette giving me this look of surprise and utter satisfaction.
I notice all the bills and hands in the air, and I see the beauty here too. Annette pulls me up on stage and to my surprise I feel like I know how to move because she’s leading me.
I haven’t felt this light in months.
I feel on fire.
D. M. Dunn (he/him) works as a publishing director in Bloomington, Indiana. He’s currently pursuing his MFA in fiction part time. His most recent publication, Sonnets from the Erodian #1, can be found in the YouFlower/YouFeast anthology. Find him on Twitter @dmdunnwriter.