G raham Kerr sat back in the armchair, crossed his legs, and relished the moment, the few minutes that stood between life and death, between a happy home and a burned-out shell filled with bodies. Kerr loved fires. He loved the smells and sounds and the feel of the heat, but the nature of his weakness meant that he could never see the fruits of his talent, at least not close up. Instead he had to take his satisfaction in the anticipation of what he was about to do. He rattled the matchbox, smiling at the click-click-click of the matches as they rattled together. Then he slid open the box and inhaled the fragrance of the matches within. The matches, as always, were Swan Vestas. Kerr loved the colours of the box, the red, green and gold, and the feel of the strip of sandpaper along the side. And he could feel himself grow hard at the scraping sound he’d soon be hearing, followed by the hiss as the red phosphorous head burst into life. Kerr shuddered and gasped softly. He took out a match and sniffed it. There was only one thing that smelled better than an unlit match and that was a match that had been used. He teased himself by touching the match head against the striker and twisting it ever so slightly. Kerr had never liked safety matches. They were the poor relation of the match family; they didn’t smell as good, they didn’t sound as good, and they didn’t look as good. He had never used a safety match and he never would.
He looked slowly around the room. His eyes had become accustomed to the darkness and he could see everything. The cabinet filled with poor-quality china and crystal. The sideboard with its framed photographs of the children and grandchildren that they saw twice a year at most. The bag of knitting by the sofa, and the stack of OK! and Hello! magazines on the coffee table.
Kerr breathed in slowly through his nose, savouring the smells in the room. The lingering scent of the woman’s too-sweet perfume, the acrid odour of the man’s feet, the smell of overcooked vegetables and stale cooking fat from the kitchen.
They would be dead soon, the husband and wife sleeping upstairs. The smoke would kill them as they slept, long before the fire consumed them. People always died in the fires that Kerr set. That was the point of setting them. And it meant that fire investigators always moved in to examine the aftermath. They wanted to know two things: where the fire had started and what had caused it. Kerr’s skill was to provide answers to both those questions in such a way as to eradicate all thoughts of arson from the investigators’ minds.
Investigators would first study the site from a distance, then move in towards the site of origin, and then they would begin sifting through the ashes and collecting samples. They knew that fires had a tendency to burn upwards and outwards so they would look for V-shaped patterns on the walls. Air currents helped spread a fire, which rose faster as it got hotter. The nature of the burning material also influenced the speed and direction of the fire. Cloth burned faster than carpet which burned faster than wood. A skilled investigator could look at the colour of burned material and know the temperature it had reached at the height of the fire, and could also make assumptions based on the way objects had been deformed, the patterns left by smoke, and the depth of charring.
By reading the clues correctly, the investigator could determine where the fire had started. That’s where many arsonists gave themselves away, Kerr knew. They were so keen to make sure the fire took that they set it in several places, and that was a red flag to any half-decent investigator. As was the use of an accelerant. The most common ways of starting a fire involved the use of petrol, turpentine, diesel and kerosene, but anything inflammable could be used, including alcohol, acetone and any one of a number of solvents. Amateurs assumed that the fire would remove all traces of any accelerant, but Kerr knew better. The investigators took samples and had them analysed in labs that were capable of identifying the tiniest trace of liquid hydrocarbons, and the wrong hydrocarbon in the wrong place meant only one thing: arson. Kerr had set more than fifty fires and killed almost a hundred people, and never once had anyone suspected that his fires were anything other than tragic accidents.
Kerr followed a set of rules he had drawn up at the start of a killing spree that had lasted more than fifteen years. He only ever set a fire in one place. He never took an accelerant with him. Amateurs walked the streets with cans of petrol or bottles of white spirit; Kerr never had anything on him more suspicious than a box of Swan Vestas. That was what made him so good at what he did – he never took anything to a fire, and he never took anything away. Before he even so much as struck a match, he would sit in whatever building he had decided to burn and he would imagine that he was a fire. He would become the flames, growing slowly at first then devouring everything, burning and destroying until there was nothing left but ash.
For Kerr to hide what he’d done, he had to provide a story that the investigators would believe. A house where there was a smoker was the easiest. A burning cigarette dropped onto a sofa next to an ashtray would do the job on its own, even if Kerr didn’t help it by fanning the flames with a magazine. Candles were good. All he had to do was light one and place it near a curtain. And electrical appliances were a good choice, especially electric fires; plug-in air fresheners were a godsend; houses with working fireplaces were always easy to burn. If all else failed there was the kitchen, where a left-on oven could be made to look like the source of a house fire.
He put the match back in the box and the box in the chest pocket of his shirt. The matches rattled as the box settled and Kerr quivered with excitement.
The house Kerr was in belonged to a retired couple. Mr and Mrs Wilkinson. They were upstairs, fast asleep. There was a smoke alarm in the hall but Kerr had taken out the battery and placed it in the rubbish bin for the investigator to find. It was Monday, the day that Mrs Wilkinson did her ironing. She did her washing on Sunday afternoon and her ironing the day after, as regular as clockwork. Kerr knew her schedule because he had been watching the house for weeks. He knew the Wilkinsons always went to bed before eleven and that they never locked their kitchen door.
They both read the Daily Telegraph and a copy had been left on the sofa. Kerr stood and picked up the paper. He flicked through it. Mr Wilkinson had completed the crossword. He was a smart man, a retired headteacher who played bridge competitively and was a leading member of the local MENSA group.
Mrs Wilkinson kept her ironing board and iron in a cupboard in the kitchen. He went to get them and carried them through into the sitting room. He opened out the board and stood it next to the sofa. That was where Mrs Wilkinson usually did the ironing, so that she could watch the television as she worked. There was a socket behind the sofa and Kerr plugged in the iron. He placed it on the ironing board, checking that the handle was in the correct position because Mrs Wilkinson was left-handed and a smart investigator would know that.
Kerr placed the copy of the Daily Telegraph next to the iron, which was clicking quietly as it heated up. Kerr stood back and put his head on one side. Mrs Wilkinson had finished ironing but had gone upstairs without switching the iron off. She was an old lady, absent-minded. Her husband had followed her, and had put the newspaper on the ironing board. Why? Who knew why? It was just one of those things that old people did sometimes.
Kerr took out his box of matches. He looked at the iron and the paper. The iron would get hot, the paper would burn, the paper would fall onto the sofa, that would burn, burning fabric would fall onto the carpet and that would burn and then it would spread to the sideboard and the bookcase and then the room would be an inferno and the hallway would be full of smoke that would quietly suffocate the couple upstairs.
He could have waited for the hot iron to ignite the paper but if he did that he would miss the best part, the part that he enjoyed the most. He took out a match and struck it and then held it close to his face and inhaled the smoke. He smiled and touched the yellow flame against the newspaper. The paper burned quickly. Kerr shook the match to extinguish it before putting it back into the box. He slipped the box into his shirt pocket, then carefully slid the burning newspaper off the ironing board and onto the sofa. He moved a cushion so that it was leaning against the newspaper, then stood back from the flames. He could feel the heat on his face and he basked in it like a cat enjoying the sun.
The flames licked around the cushion and it crackled and burst into flames. Plumes of black smoke spiralled up to the ceiling. Kerr knew that it was time to go but as always the pull of the flames was strong, calling him to stay, to watch, to enjoy. He hardened his heart and walked out of the sitting room. He let himself out of the front door and walked down the path to the street. The nearest house was a hundred yards away and even if the neighbours noticed the fire it would be at least half an hour before the fire engine arrived. By then it would all be over.
Kerr had parked his car a short walk from the Wilkinsons’ house. He took one more look back. A yellow light was flickering against the curtains, casting black rippling shadows. Kerr blew the house a kiss and headed for his car.