David Turton has extensive training in Journalism, Marketing and Public Relations and has been writing as a career for over fourteen years. A huge horror fiction fan, particularly the works of Stephen King, David has written several short stories, all centred around dark tales of horror and dystopia. One of his short stories is set to be published in C.P. Dunphey's Body Horror Anthology in 2017. He is also in the final stages of his first novel, an apocalyptic horror set in the near future.
The Six Snake Setter
Jake Marwood sat in his armchair and took three deep, sharp breaths on his respirator. After spending thirty years tackling fires, smoke had been his mortal enemy. He’d fought hundreds of fires, dragged unconscious people from buildings that had been consumed by hot flames and pungent, deadly fumes. It was ironic that it would be a different kind of smoke that would eventually take his life; the cigarette smoke that he’d put into his own lungs, not only deliberately but with some satisfaction. He’d spent his life fighting one kind of smoke and embracing another, but it was all the same in the end. Smoke was a killer, plain and simple.
He looked over at the awards, accolades, newspaper cuttings and photographs that adorned the area above his fireplace and rolled his eyes. Jake had been a hero in his career, the saver of lives and the protector of the community. A man of trust and integrity. But it had all started out in dull fashion. Young and excited to get stuck into burning buildings, Jake had begun his duties with just a few road traffic accidents and some animal rescues. It was a year on the job before he was called to a real fire, an empty warehouse that was under control within minutes. Ten years went by and Jake’s firefighting career consisted of a few large blazes that were dealt with easily, several smaller kitchen fires and countless road traffic accidents and animal rescues. The banter on Sierra Red Watch was great and it kept his spirits and his interest up, but the lack of real heroic firefighting began to eat away at him. That all changed with the Six Snake Setter in 1997.
The first call was a block of flats. Jake had stood outside for a split second and gazed at the burning building. It was like looking at a vision of what he expected this job to involve when he’d dreamed about the career – the motherload. The twenty-five-storey building was engulfed in flames, people were running past Jake and his crew, all screaming. He ran inside the building, clad in his protective equipment and breathing apparatus and bounded up the stairs, pushing past fallen beams and waving thick plumes of smoke away. He jumped up the stairs, every inch of his leg muscles thrusting him powerfully up the incline. He burst into a flat where he heard screaming, first checking the door and then ploughing into it, shoulder-first. Jake saw three young children and their mother, trapped by flames. He rushed past the flames and scooped up the small children, grabbing the mother by the arm and pulling her onto his shoulders. He quickly but carefully descended the stairs and put the stricken family by the side of the building. Ignoring calls from his crew, he rushed back in. There were more people to save; men, women, children. Jake saved twelve people in total, including seven children under the age of ten. Other crews rescued more residents and, unbelievably, there were no deaths. Although he received a stern warning from his Station Manager for reckless disregard for his own safety, it made no difference once the media picked up the story. Jake was a hero, single-handedly responsible for saving the lives of twelve souls. He became the poster boy for the Fire Service’s brilliant handling of the fire.
Sat in his small flat with his emphysema respirator across his mouth, Jake gazed at one of the cuttings above his fireplace. HERO FIREMAN SAVES TWELVE IN ARSON BLAZE. He smiled, remembering the effect it had in the weeks that followed. People recognised him in the street, bought him beers in bars, hugged him. He was a local hero, a minor celebrity. He gave national interviews and was a regular face in the news. And, just when it looked like calming down, it happened again.
On the east side of the city, an office complex went up in flames. Jake was on duty again, on Sierra Red Watch’s night shift. There were less people to rescue, but Jake still managed to bring three security guards out unharmed and, again, there were no fatalities. There was more media attention, but this time Jake’s heroics were slightly overshadowed by a revelation and the launch of a huge criminal investigation as it was revealed that both fires were linked. A fire setter had caused both blazes. Fire investigators found stubbed out cigarettes at both scenes, something in itself not exactly incriminating, but the brand of cigarettes was rare – Six Snakes – a defunct Japanese brand from the 1960s with an image of six snakes intertwined on the side of the paper. Both fires had been set in exactly the same way, with diesel and a rag. It was official – a city-wide manhunt took place to find what the media had dubbed The Six Snake Setter. Police interviewed all cigarette collectors in the area. They brought in all known arsonists over the previous twenty years. The investigation took several months and was unsuccessful. Then it happened again and this time, it was fatal.
The arsonist had upped the stakes, targeting a 24-hour Supermarket. The fire started in a storeroom, which had been locked, allowing the fire to build before bursting out of the door in a huge explosion and quickly engulfing the entire store. Jake wasn’t on duty this time, but rushed to get his equipment and join the Green Watch who tackled the fire. He had run into the store and grabbed one of the workers, pulling them out and laying them on the grass outside the store. He spent twenty minutes giving the woman mouth-to-mouth but it was too late. Twenty-two people were lost in the fire and this time Jake – the community hero - had failed to rescue any of them. Investigators again found the calling card, a stubbed-out Six Snakes cigarette outside the store. The police ramped up the investigation but again came up short.
Bloody useless coppers, Jake thought to himself as his sat in his chair and brushed his hand through the thin grey strands that remained of his hair. Couldn’t find a boot if it kicked them up the arse. The attacks stopped then. Every now and again the media mentioned the fires and the police followed more lines of enquiry but still it came to nothing. It seemed the Six Snake Setter had hung up his diesel, his cloth and lighter for good.
Jake took off his respirator and stood up with a loud wheeze. He put out his hands and grasped the mantelpiece to balance himself, his head spinning with the effort of standing. As his eyes came into focus he looked at the large silver axe hanging on his wall. A retirement gift that commended his bravery, his name was engraved on it. Several medals sat on the mantelpiece including his OBE, which he received from the Queen – the single greatest day of his life. Jake smiled and reached for his pills. No smoke would take his life, not today, not ever. He would control everything, like he always controlled the smoke. He had beaten the searing, lapping flames of fire and its deathly smoke all his life and he would beat this one too. He emptied the bottle of pills into his mouth, tipping his head backwards until all forty tablets were in his mouth. He grabbed a glass of tepid water and swallowed, painfully feeling the bulky mass of tablets pass down his throat and into his stomach. He stifled a cough until he was sure that all the pills had entered his system and then he let go, coughing thick phlegm with a smattering of blood onto his hand.
He walked over to his cabinet and reached into his pocket for the key. It took some effort to wrap his gnarled fingers around it and unlock the cabinet but he managed it after a couple of clumsy attempts. He reached into the back of the cabinet and opened an old tin. One more cigarette before I go, he thought to himself and smiled. He grabbed the pack of cigarettes and an old Zippo lighter and stumbled back to his armchair. He put the cigarette into his mouth and lit it, the initial harsh intake of smoke causing him to cough violently. The smoke hurt but the thick, warm feel of it in his throat and inside his wrecked lungs felt comforting somehow. As a warm, drowsy feeling came over him, Jake looked down at the burning cigarette in his hand and admired the green snakes on the side of the paper. He closed his eyes and was dead before the cigarette burned out.