Verse 26: BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE
Where Buzz had been since coming face to squeaky-toy with Warlock is open to conjecture. He himself could not say. The intervening time blurred in a haze of alcohol and general derangement, most of it spent in the Rammstein, if the pile of empties on the floor bore any witness. He had devised a little drinking game. Every time he thought of Gloria lying bleeding and broken, he took a drink. Every time he imagined Lex screaming beneath the wheels of the mighty truck, he took a drink. Every time the cops came by and put another ticket under his windshield wiper, he hid under the dashboard and took another drink. And so time passed.
When he spied Lex and Gloria strolling past him, Buzz's heart burned with righteous rage. He knew they'd had sex – with each other, no doubt – and in time-honored slasher flick tradition that meant they had to die. Retribution was at hand. He and his steel behemoth would make short work of the two people who had conspired to turn his previously happy life into a shit sandwich. Thirty yards to go. They broke into a run, but he knew they could not hide. Now twenty yards and the speedometer needle crept past 30, heading for 35. Ten yards now, and 41 mph. At almost sixty feet per second, he aimed the nose of his gas-guzzling steed at his unwary prey.
"This one's for Woody, assholes!" he roared, jammed the pedal through the rustbucket's floorboard, and completely neglected to brace for impact.
Lex heard the motor's whine first, but it made no impression on him. Gloria, much more savvy about such sounds, intuited that something was amiss. Of course, the screams behind her from people hurling themselves out of Buzz's path might have played a part as well. In any event, she turned, reacted swiftly, and called Lex's name. By the time Lex wheeled to face the charging truck, it was almost upon them. Without a moment's hesitation, he scooped Gloria up in his arms. For a split second he debated going left or right, but instantly rejected both ideas. Instead, he headed in the one direction he knew the metal monster could not follow. Less than a second before the Rammstein's grill could make a lasting impression on them, Lex jumped directly at the vehicle. He landed on its hood, much to Buzz's slack-jawed amazement, but did not stop there. He had barely enough time to recognize the driver before his second step carried them to the cab's roof, and from there to the cargo-bed where he and Gloria fell painfully just as the truck plowed through Gilda's front door and onto the tavern itself.
The force of the impact had no effect on the Dodge's well-shielded fuel tank, but its jury-rigged fuel line connection was far more tenuous, and, with the motor still running, the fuel pump continued to operate. A highly volatile puddle began to spread.
Zoot was the first to appreciate the imminent danger.
"Gas leak!" she yelled. "Everybody out!" She pointed to the red EXIT sign by the corridor leading to service door. Some headed thataway immediately. Others reflexively moved for the way they'd entered, only to find their path blocked by the truck. Those not beating hasty retreats seemed glued in place.
One such was Marlon Twimble, of the Meriden Twimbles. While most of the sizable crowd had come inside to wet their whistles, he had a different craving to satisfy. Marlon was a clandestine smoker, victim of a chain of events. First his office adopted a strict smoke-free workplace policy. Then his wife quit when she learned she was pregnant with Marlon Jr., and decreed the father-to-be could no longer smoke in the house. Soon she became so sensitive to the smell that she extended the interdiction to the family cars. The next inevitable step came with his son's birth. Armed with statistics and the fervor of a former addict, she browbeat Marlon into joining her in forsaking the demon weed. For two years he'd stayed clean, but at a coworker's bachelor party he'd bummed a Marlboro and after that the path back to addiction became a slippery slope. He braved sub-freezing temperatures to indulge his habit in unshielded doorways. He stocked up on clothing deodorizing sprays and Binaca. He had learned to cache packs where they would not be found. That day he had begged off accompanying his wife and son to the aquarium, pleading sore feet and saying he wanted to catch the Sox on the tube. He would meet them for dinner, he promised, and headed downtown. Gilda's was one of the few remaining havens available to smokers in Mystic, and he could smoke himself sick there and blame any lingering odor on the other patrons.
When Buzz made his dramatic entrance, Marlon was in the process of lighting up his sixth Newport in two hours. He had just enough time to take a drag before the left front fender flashed by his seat, missing him by 26 inches and sending the table at which he had been seated to furniture heaven. Open-mouthed, he stared at the incongruity of the thing, his coffin nail dangling from his lower lip. It adhered there for a second before dropping off onto his shirt. He stood in a panic, swatting at the offending butt before it could leave a telltale burn mark, and rushed off on the trail of those whom Zoot was directing to safety. The mentholated fuse awaited the imminent arrival of the spreading pool. It did not have to wait long.
With a mighty whoosh, the puddle ignited. Flames rose, licking at the underside of the truck, seeking food to slake their own cravings and finding plenty in the tavern's fixtures. The three current occupants of the Rammstein reacted to the fire according to their level of mental acuity. Lex (thinking clearly) carried Gloria (merely stunned) beyond the fire's perimeter with another leap made mighty by equal parts innate strength, lighter gravity, and a desire not to burn to death. Buzz (whacked out of his skull and bleeding like a stuck pig from where the top of his head had made the acquaintance of Mr. Windshield) had apparently chosen to go down – or rather up – with his trusty truck.
Lex ran to Zoot, ineffectually battling the blaze with a fire extinguisher, and passed Gloria off to her friend. The two women saw the rest of the occupants outside past Tully who held the door open for the stream of frightened people.
"Where's Lex?" he yelled.
"Lex!" Gloria screamed and tried to rush back inside.
Zoot restrained her. "God knows why," she said, "but I think he went back for Buzz!"
Whether Buzz lived or died was of no matter to the Minstrel. In single combat, he would have cheerfully run the bastard through, then stood over his twitching body as life slipped away; yet to let an adversary, worthy or not, die in such a helpless fashion offended Lex's sense of honor. The truck was surrounded by a solid wall of fire and would have been inaccessible to most not wielding a high-pressure hose. Lex had his own equivalent. He held his hands high, index fingers aimed at an imaginary point directly over the driver's side door, and cast Hydro Blast. Every drop of water in the tavern, including the not inconsiderable amount of vapor in the atmosphere of the coastal community, immediately condensed into a cloud where he pointed, then coalesced into a sphere of water. He loosed its contents at the blaze, extinguishing enough of the flames for him to grasp the steaming door and rip it off its hinges. He roughly hauled the unconscious Buzz out of the truck and carried him out the service door.
"Is that everyone?" Tully asked.
Lex nodded, and let Buzz slump to the pavement. "Get away," he warned. "I fear the building is done for."
He would have cast Hydro Blast again on the outside of the building, in defiance of Gloria's rule against using magic, but could not for the simplest of reasons. He had only matrixed the spell once. In saving Buzz, he had thrown away any chance of saving Gilda's.
Where Lex fell short, Mystic's volunteer firefighters came through. Four minutes and thirty-two seconds from the time the 911 call lit up the switchboard, they were on-site. It took a minute to set up the equipment, but by 5:26 pm, they engaged the beast with a professionalism that even the fabled FDNY would deem exemplary.
One police cruiser arrived at 5:27. The officers immediately began the not inconsiderable task of crowd control. One ordered the curious to depart the area and give the fire crew room to work, while the other ascertained whether anyone had been injured. Thankfully no one had but he called for EMS just to be safe. Next he set about canvassing the crowd to ascertain if anyone had witnessed the precipitating events. Every hand in the group went up. The cops began taking statements.
At 5:33, Buzz regained some semblance of consciousness. He lifted his head, heard the general hubbub, and assessed his situation: in deep doodoo and sinking fast. All thoughts of Gloria and Lex fled as his desire for ass-preservation took over. He didn't know how he'd gotten the hell out of the Dodge, but decided that was as good a path to follow as any. He shakily got to his feet, his head throbbing fit to burst, and looked for the nearest escape route.
"Where do you think you're going, boyo?" Tully growled and moved his wheelchair to block.
"Out of here, dickhead," Buzz answered. "I ain't hanging around for the pigs."
"I don't think so, boy. Not on my watch." Tully activated the lift mechanism. "Lie down and wait for the law."
"Make me!" Buzz laughed and immediately regretted it. "Unless you've equipped that thing with a twelve gauge I suggest you roll out of the way." Tully said nothing. "Have it your way," Buzz sneered and stumbled towards the space between the chair and freedom.
He had not reckoned with Tully's upper body strength. The combat veteran pushed against the chair's frame with both massive forearms and blitzed the ex-quarterback. Both arms grabbed Buzz's legs and brought him down at the line of scrimmage. Tully quickly pulled himself forward until he was face-to-face with the would-be fugitive from justice. He drew back one meaty fist and clipped a stunned Buzz on the point of his stubbly jaw. There was no flag on the late hit.
"That's how we do it in the 101st, junior," Tully announced. Buzz, once more unconscious, exercised his right to remain silent.
Gloria, Lex, and Officer Kinsey found the combatants. Gloria ran to Tully's side. "Are you okay?"
"I'm in a little pain, babe," he admitted, "but nothing serious. Just help me into my chair. The less time I spend lying on top of this sad excuse for a human being the happier I'll be."
The officer righted the chair and Lex, with Gloria's unnecessary assistance, lifted Tully and set him back in the seat, now returned to its lowered position. Gloria knelt at Tully's feet. She lifted the left one and placed it securely on the proper footrest. She reached for the right, then jerked back in shock as the shoe rose of its own accord and joined its companion.
"Tully!" she looked up into his face.
"Surprise!" he beamed back at her.