Horror & Mystery Book Club January 2022 Submissions
The first to hit you is the smell. Imagine a thousand cows burning to death in an enclosed barn. The rank stench of burning flesh, hair, and bone. The heat is secondary—it can be dealt with—but the smell…You vomit the first time, the second, and all the others. Nothing on Earth can help or prepare you for it. All you can do is hope and pray, so when you lie in bed at night with your wife, the smell lingers no more in your memory. Impossible, of course. It stays with you just as the sight of what caused it.
Afterwards, when your sense of smell has been virtually obliterated, it’s your vision which seems to be confused. My first time, at the tender age of twenty-three, I was presented with the colourful sight of a pair of slippers resting in front of an armchair. The problem was the feet which were still inside them, and nothing above. They might have been some bizarre ornament or drunken artist’s invention, because where the rest of the body should have been, was ash. A large pile sat like some miniature pyramid on the armchair, while other, smaller piles lay indifferently around the floor.
Jagged bone tissue, like the bones my dog, Saltan, gnaws on, protruded above the ankles. The leather on the armchair showed not a single sign of scorching. The handkerchief hanging over one side looked brand new. Beside the armchair was a small table with an empty bottle of Smirnoff and an empty coffee cup, no doubt for drinking the vodka from.
So, where was the rest of the body? No blood gave indication of foul play, no splattering on the walls or the tiled floor. Nothing except those little piles of ash and two single slipper-clad feet directly in front of the armchair.
I recall how my stomach began its rapid ascent to my throat. Before I even had time to turn, I ejected all my breakfast upon the floor and including upon my senior, Inspector Sargent Briggs, who to this day I suspect has still not forgiven me. He, of course, had seen many mutilations and terrible scenes in his time, but even so, a certain pallidity overcame his features when we entered the house.
Dismayed, we entered further into the living room, for some reason both with hands upon our gun holsters, although it was evident that no weapon was necessary in this case. Sargent Briggs picked up a prong by the fireplace and prodded one of the feet. The ankle bone disintegrated upon touch. I don’t remember my own response, but Briggs jumped back and whimpered like a scared puppy.
“Get out of here,” he said to me, although it cost him maintain composure, and to speak with any degree of clarity.
We had been called to the scene because a neighbour had seen smoke emanating from an open window in the living room, yet upon inspection of the rest of the room, there was no evidence of any fire except in front of the damned chair, not even a smoke-stained ceiling. We were both shocked and mystified. What could possibly conceive to cause such tragedy, and burn a human being to the point of ashes without destroying the rest of the house?
For the victim it had to be. No other remains were ever discovered, and the ashes were deemed to be human.
The victim was identified as Donald Flanders, a seventy-year-old widow known for his intimate relationship with hard liquor. The empty bottle of Smirnoff seemed to confirm this. On many occasions, the neighbours had been received with a severe rebuking for disturbing him at his home, and it was not uncommon to see him stagger down his path to leave his garbage, often falling in his drunken state in the process.
It was decided that the cause of death be ‘fire’, yet too many questions remained which could never be answered satisfactorily. Sargent Briggs suggested we try and forget about it. Some combination of bad luck and fate had condemned this helpless person to a terrible end. We could only pray that this was an isolated incident.
Sargent Briggs was already hearing his retirement calling to him from a close proximity, and by God did he deserve it, but even now, I still wonder if he awakens in the middle of the night, panicking as he imagines an odour of burning flesh. I know I do.
A brief series of ‘interviews’ with the police psychologist helped me overcome my initial horror and shock at my first real crime scene, and eventually I was to witness events far gorier in design and effect, but the first encounter never really left me. The smell lingered permanently, even after scrubbing myself daily with a hard brush and soap in the shower.
And then, three months later, I was called to a crime scene. This time I was alone, Sargent Briggs now enjoying his retirement, and I had been promoted to a plain-clothes officer left to my own devices, after pulling the plug on a real nasty band who plied their trade in drug selling and women trafficking.
I remember arriving at a small house and seeing two young officers outside the premises; one bent over vomiting, and the other with a decidedly pallid aspect to him. This, of course, raises instant red flags. Policeman are trained to be prepared for the worst sights imaginable, but I can vouch that sometimes no training can prepare you for your first or last scene of extreme brutality upon another human being. When children are involved not the hardest, most stubborn man alive can avoid reacting in some way. All you can do is take a deep breath, and have your handkerchief ready for the worst. And that’s what I did.
I confronted the first officer; the one who wasn’t vomiting.
“What’s the situation?” I asked.
First, he simply pointed to the door, gesturing for me to enter.
“Come on, officer. What’s happened?”
“A burn victim. But not like one I’ve ever seen before. And we have to assume that it’s a person in there, because most of him is… umm…missing.”
By recounting to me the situation, his stomach finally lost the battle and he joined his companion in regurgitating the morning’s breakfast. Me? A memory came flooding back. It had never entirely gone, of course, but I had somehow managed to bury it behind other images which, although far bloodier and gorier, seemed to represent a more realistic image of what being a police officer was all about.
Following my own advice, I took a deep breath and opened the door.
The smell. That smell. Unforgiving, unmistakable. My stomach began to perform circus tricks inside, the bile rising rapidly to my throat, seeking an escape route from the madness occurring to my intestines.
“Dear God, not again,” I muttered to myself. My chest felt like a great weight was pressing down hard impeding me breathe with normality, and it was not the heat that almost blew me off my feet.
I walked into the house. The hallway led to a living room on the left. I could see the heat coming from within, as one can see it rise from the tarmac on a hot day. I feared the worst, yet was unsure of what the worst could be. I thought I had already confronted that previously. Holding my handkerchief to my nose and mouth, and suspecting the cleanliness of it may soon be violated, I headed tentatively to the living room.
What I was confronted with can only be described as the most abominable, sickening sight a human being can envisage and still have room left over for a twisted imagination.
As with the previous incident, the living room was in perfect conditions, albeit somewhat dusty and grimy, but this was to be expected from a seventy-three year old pensioner. The first thing I noticed was the almost empty bottle of Jameson on a small coffee table by the armchair, and this was something which would come back to disturb me later. The armchair was turned to face a small television, so from my position all I could see was its back. A linen cloth, white and almost immaculate, hung over the back of it. This also provoked a certain unease; a sense of what was to come.
Before heading over to the armchair, I looked around. There appeared to be no sign of fire, robbery or anything that resembled a crime scene; only the intense heat and smell signified a ‘situation’. This, of course, made it worse.
So, already guessing what I was to find, I headed over to the armchair. Taking a deep breath, and praying that that morning’s breakfast would stay in place, I peeked over the top of the armchair.
To immediately jump back.
Two blackened, bloated hands lay on the floor.
In-between two sock-clad, slipper covered feet.
For some bizarre reason, the first thing that came to mind was those childish clock-work feet one winds up and watches as they prance around the floor. Maybe they belonged to some child’s life-sized doll—his niece’s perhaps. But I knew that I was just trying to find logic in a desperately illogical situation. As the morning’s bacon sandwich came alive again in my stomach, I remembered Sargent Briggs’ tactic. Picking up a prong sitting beside the (cold) fireplace, I prodded at one of the hands as though it were some poisonous snake that might still be alive.
The fingers separated from the hand. Five bloated worms morphed into ash, like when Dracula or one of his kind were hit by sunlight. That’s when my previously tasty bacon butty joined the party.
I knew there was nothing I could do to help, so I left and told the officers to call the coroner, but not before picking up and smelling the empty (and cold) bottle of Jameson. Something in me—that instinct that only a hardened police officer can possess—suggested a connection; empty bottle of vodka at Donald Flander’s home; empty bottle of Jameson at Kenneth Streller’s.
Even now, six months later, I still see that connection. And it scares me.
### ### ###
Two victims. Completely unrelated except in being pensioners, and apparent alcoholics. Neighbours related pretty much the same as Flanders’ did; abusive, grumpy old man prone to tasting the grass in his garden when he took out the garbage and fell over drunk. No indication of pyromania, no suspicion of foul play on behalf of neighbours or family members with perhaps an eye on the property. Another case of ‘burned to death’.
It was then I began to look into the matter closer when not investigating cases of an earthlier nature. At the time, I was heading a big operation concerning another drug smuggling ring, and my free time was short, but I started reading about fires and their composition on the Internet. Did you know it takes almost two hours to cremate a human body at roughly fifteen hundred degrees centigrade? Your average house fire burns at approximately one thousand at its peak. According to reports, the fires at both homes apparently started only twenty minutes before the fire brigade arrived.
It was reading these statistics and other phenomena on almost a daily basis, Ballantine’s and Coke in hand, when I started to suspect other…unworldly possibilities. What others are there? How is it possibly for a human body to be almost completely cremated in twenty minutes when it takes the professionals almost two hours? And their houses should have melted to the ground.
It was with a growing unease that almost everything I had ever been taught, both at school and at police training school, I came to realize was in jeopardy. I was taught logic, science, reason. Things happen because someone or thing has caused them to happen. Deliberately or indirectly. And yet, I discovered there had been reports of unexplained human combustion for centuries. And in almost all cases, the circumstances were exactly the same as those that I had witnessed.
Except the last one. The one that saw me retire prematurely from the forces, and sees me sitting here at home, a half-empty bottle of Ballantine’s by my side, and wondering.
I wonder a lot now.
The drug smuggling operation was drawing to an end. As were my nerves. I had to take sleeping pills, mild sedatives. Night after night, I would awake to the smell of burning. I’d dream of things scurrying across the floor as I watched television. But not spiders or bugs. Instead; feet. A hand. Charred and rotting, smoke emanating from it and filling the air with noxious human fumes. And the hand would sit up on its bloody, bony wrist and waggle one, bulbous, warped finger as though signalling me, beckoning me; its fingernail dangling, hanging on by a tiny thread of flesh.
And then I’d feel a heat in my groin, and expand throughout the rest of my body until it reached my head and then, sweating like a pig, smoke would start billowing from every orifice, until…
Until I woke up screaming.
It was after one such nightmare that I awoke, drenched in sweat (that by now had a certain similarity to the smell I dreamed of each night), to my phone ringing. It was my boss Lieutenant Pullin. There had been an ‘incident’ that required my presence. He mentioned something about a possible fire, although the circumstances were unusual. Immediately I knew. The sweat froze to my body, goose-bumps like boulders smothered my arms and chest, and I felt like I’d been sleeping in a deep-freezer. Reluctantly, I said I was on my way.
By now, coffee did little to alleviate the pang in my chest and the throbbing in my head in the mornings, so the remains of the previous night’s binge went down the chute instead. Shave? Later.
With a sense of utter dread, I arrived at the alleged victim’s home. Apparently smoke had been seen coming from under the front door which had provoked the phone call from the neighbour to the fire brigade, but after just a few seconds, it had stopped, so the neighbour had phoned back to say it was a false alarm. But, seeing as I lived nearby, Pullin wanted me to check it out. I had experience, he said, in such matters.
Nobody was waiting for me when I arrived at the house, so I knocked on the door. Everything seemed completely unremarkable, but, we now know, appearances can be deceiving, so after knocking on the door again, I tried the handle. It was hot. Not to the point of burning, but decidedly, unnaturally, so. Taking a deep breath, and wishing I’d brought my little flask with me for ‘awkward’ situations as I liked to call them, I pushed the door open.
In my short time as police officer, I have seen multitude of horrors. I have seen pregnant women inject themselves with heroin, not a care or thought of the child within. I have seen human beings mauled and decapitated, a ‘sign’ from rival drug dealers. I once was witness to a child who had been savaged by a rogue Rottweiler. They confirmed his identity via his dental records. Yes, I have seen many horrors in the world, but nothing can compare to what I witnessed when I opened the front door. Not a drop of blood, or mutilated body so to speak but something which might have appeared so innocent and even natural, that any belief in God that I may have once retained, evaporated in that one split second when I approached the armchair.
Tense, a mildly trembling hand automatically hovering near my gun holster, as we are trained to do, I peered in and stated loudly my name and rank. No-one answered. I stepped into the house, and gave the living room a quick scan with roving eyes. Everything seemed fine.
Except for the smell.
It smelled as though the owner had left a rotting carcass cooking in the oven for too long for whatever reason and had forgotten to turn off the switch. My eyes watered instantly. It reminded me slightly how when I was kid, I had discovered a decomposing rat in the basement underneath my father’s workbench. Only this time, it might have been a whole family of rats, ancestors included.
I gagged, and had to use all my willpower not to vomit on the owner’s plush carpet. Maybe the quantities of alcohol I was inducing at night were acting as a natural barrier or liquefied wall against rising bile. I liked to think so anyway, because the most natural thing for me to do would be unload there and then.
With my left hand covering my mouth and nostrils, I stepped further in. And that’s when I heard the rustling, scratching sound.
Instantly, my right hand brought out my most faithful partner—my .38.
“Who’s there?” I asked.
“I am a police officer. Is there anybody home?”
Except, there was a soft humming coming from in front of the sofa, as though someone was singing to themselves. I clicked off the safety, and edged my way towards the sofa, its leather back facing me.
There was a young girl no more than four or five sat in front of the sofa drawing in something on the floor.
My heart, which had been pumping like some demonic piston in my chest subsided slightly, only to be replaced by an uneasy twisting of my intestines, as I looked at what she was doing.
I first assumed she was drawing on a piece of paper, hence the scratching sound, but when I approached her, there was no paper on the floor with her. She was making shapes with her finger in some kind of dust pile.
She looked up at me and smiled. My heart dropped. My Adam’s apple was bobbing up and down like a yo-yo, as I tried to fully comprehend what I was seeing.
“Hello,” she said. “My daddy’s not here, and I’m hungry,” as if this explained in one simple, yet terribly tragic sentence every answer to the questions my brain was desperately trying to decipher, and find a logic where there could be none. I tried to force a smile and failed dismally. I knew, see. That smell which the girl was evidently oblivious to, holds no secrets to me now.
I stepped on traitorous legs into full sight of what she was playing with. Smallish piles of dust congregated around her, now given the appearance of snaky tracks where a lizard or snake runs under sand in the desert. And then I saw what my heart and eyes prayed not to have to deal with. A single cream-coloured shoe sat by the side of the sofa; the white, melted bone still protruding.
The girl was playing, unknowingly, in her father’s ashes.
How could such a cruel abomination of fate occur? The same thing which had happened to the previous two victims I had witnessed, had evidently occurred once again. And yet this was far, far worse than all others combined. The young girl waiting for her father to come home, and yet ignorantly and naively playing in his very remains. How could I possibly tell her that Daddy wouldn’t be coming home, and even worse, she could see for herself why?
A combination of fury and great sadness overcame me as I stood there, helpless, unknowing how to proceed. My years of training did not offer any clue as to correct procedure in such matters, and I regret I took the coward’s approach. I staggered out the door and called my boss Pallin. Let him deal with the social services, and the locating of the rest of the girl’s family.
I don’t know what I said on the police radio, but when reinforcements arrived, I suspect they thought I had been shot or something, because they jumped out the police van, guns poised. All I could do was point to the house, and repeat over and over; “the girl, the girl”. Again, they must have thought the girl was seriously injured or dying, because they burst into the house, shouting for any intruder to present himself, but very shortly afterwards, a terrible silence broke the confusion, followed by sounds reminiscent of regurgitation.
The young girl continued humming.
And I still hear it now.
Several weeks later, I received a call from Pullin, asking about my condition. I told him I was doing better. The indefinite time off work, combined with the psychiatrist and the pills I was taking were slowly working, I lied. I was finally able to sleep a few hours at night, I lied. He told me to take my time, there was no rush, but he thought I might like to know that the girl was taken in by her mother—the parents were divorced—and it was recommended that she never learn of the reasons behind her father’s demise. I agreed, and hung up.
Two months after, I handed in my badge and weapon. Pullins suggested a stay at Northgate Hospital for the Mentally Impaired for a period of time. Evidently, he didn’t like what he was seeing when I presented myself at the station. I told him I would think about it, knowing that it would never happen.
All I can do now is sit here drunk in my armchair, bottle of Ballantine’s by my side, and wonder. I wonder a lot. I wonder if what I witnessed could in some, malevolent way be contagious. The empty bottle of alcohol, the armchair, the nightmares, living alone as a recluse almost. I wonder about a certain smell that invades my senses occasionally. I swear that sometimes I see wisps of smoke rising from my body, a deep heat smothering me, and I hope and pray for a swift end should I succumb to the terrible phenomenon known as spontaneous human combustion.
About the Author
Justin Boote is a 47-year-old Englishman living in Barcelona, author of dark and horror fiction. Having spent 5 years writing short stories, he now dedicates his time to writing novels. His first 5-book series, The Undead Possession Series, is already available on Amazon, with a standalone serial killer novel to come afterward followed by another short series.
To find out more visit his website at justinboote.com and receive a free, short story for signing up!