Blue Flashing Lights

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I was 14 the first time the Excelsior Hotel burned down. The police arrested a man named Earl Maddox in Victoria Park not long after. Witnesses said that he was dripping with petrol and speaking in tongues. When his mugshot got printed in the Herald he had deep murky eyes and a face that resembled a badly dented hatchback. He claimed that he only lit the fire to keep warm. The excuse would have worked better if it wasn’t 1994 – the hottest Paignton summer on record.

*

The paper printed another picture that day, showing a fireman carrying the limp body of a teenage girl out of the smoke. Years later she would become my first wife, Alouette. It’s an ugly name for a pretty girl. A few years later she became my ex-wife, but that’s another story for another time. Alouette had dirty-blonde hair and a birthmark the shape of Paignton on her inner thigh. It was one of the first things that attracted me to her. We stayed in the Excelsior on our wedding night. We could only afford a single room, and I had to climb up the fire escape in my borrowed suit after she had checked in. The room had been badly refurbished, with the walls painted the colour of dead skin. It made everything look ghostly and muted in the few photographs we took.

*

I barely remember her wedding dress, but I still remember the chocolate brown nail polish Alouette wore that day. I remember her hands cupped around my balls as we kissed on a stained single mattress. I remember the stale nicotine stains that clung to the ceiling in yellow whorls. After we fucked we drank bootleg vodka out of chipped teacups and I passed out on the collapsed velour settee. Thinking about that night now, I feel the trace of a smile creep onto my lips. Straight away it feels out of place. The last time I saw Alouette she was living with her uncle Charles in a static caravan. The meeting didn’t go well, but then again, neither did our marriage.

*

Last week the Excelsior burned down for a second time. It was a dry, airless afternoon and the thick black smoke hung in the air. The smell of burning mingled with the stink of oil and dead fish on the beach behind us. It wasn’t Earl Maddox this time. He hung himself with a shoelace after his trial, and was buried in a pauper’s grave. This time the arsonist was a career criminal named Franco Moretti.

*

I saw him handcuffed to a cop car, breathing like an asthmatic. He wiped his lips on his tie and stared into the fire, flames dancing in his glaucoma-stricken eyes. His reputation has always preceded him in this town. In the 90s he did a two-year jolt in Channings Wood for torture and fraud, and two years ago he attempted to avoid a police roadblock in Plymouth by smuggling a missing child across the Tamar Bridge, sewn inside a car seat. I later heard that the Cornish cops beat him so badly he pissed blood for a fortnight. He was 72 at the time.

*

Under the blue flashing lights Franco’s face looked sickly and distorted. He coughed up blood all over the roof of the police car, and when he smiled at me his mouth looked as wide as Palace Avenue itself.

Tom Leins

About Tom Leins

Tom Leins is a disgraced ex-film critic from Paignton, UK. His short stories have been published by the likes of Akashic Books, Shotgun Honey, Spelk Fiction and Near to the Knuckle. He is currently working on his first novel: Thirsty & Miserable.

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