Cornell Stamoran slid his chipped thumbnail through the crisp seal of Jack Daniel’s. He stared at the bottle and swallowed hard. His throat felt cotton-dry. His tongue licked chapped lips. All involuntary reactions, easily triggered.
Back in the days when he was a partner in one of the District’s top accounting firms, his drink had been Jack and Coke. Little by little the Coke disappeared long before he started keeping a bottle of whiskey in his desk’s bottom drawer, and by then it didn’t even need to be Jack or Jim or Johnnie.
He probably wasn’t the first accountant to stash his morning fix in his corner office, but he was the only one he knew of to exchange that desk and office for a coveted empty cardboard box, the Maytag stamp still emblazoned on the side.
His first week on the streets Cornell had slept behind a statue on Capitol Hill. Frickin’ ironic—he used to sit in the back of clients’ limos driving by those same streets. Funny how quickly your life can turn to crap and suddenly you’re learning the value of a good box and a warm blanket.
Usually Cornell hid the box out of sight between a monster-size Dumpster and a dirty brick wall when he needed to make a trip downtown. Out here on the outskirts of warehouseland it was quiet. Nobody hassled you. But it got boring as hell. Cornell would make a trip downtown at least once a week. Pick up some fresh cigarette butts, do a little panhandling. Sometimes he’d sit in the library and read. He couldn’t check out any books. Where the hell would he keep them? What if he didn’t get them back on time? In this new life he didn’t want even that little bit of obligation or responsibility. Those were the pitfalls that had landed him on the streets in the first place.
So once a week he’d leave his prized possessions—the box, a couple of blankets someone had mistakenly tossed in a Dumpster. He’d put his few small valuables in a dirty red backpack and lug it around for the day. If he didn’t want to walk the five miles he’d have to get up early to catch the homeless bus. That’s what he’d done this morning. But he missed the last evening bus. He didn’t bother to keep track of time anymore.
What did it matter? Not like he had a meeting or appointment. Hell, he didn’t even wear a watch. Truth was, his gold-plated Rolex had been one of the first things he’d pawned. But today Cornell ran into a bit of luck. Actually sort of tripped right in front of it when a black town car almost knocked him into the curb.
The car was picking up some woman and her stiff, both all dressed up, probably on their way to the Kennedy Center or a cocktail party. The woman started to apologize, then elbowed her old man until he dug into his wallet. Cornell didn’t pay much attention and instead found himself wondering how all these gorgeous young women ended up with these old geezers.
Never mind. He knew exactly how.
A few years ago he would have been competition for this bastard. Now he was a nuisance to take pity on. Although Cornell convinced himself that the woman had caught a glimpse of his irresistible charm. Yeah, charming the way he picked himself up from the sidewalk, smack-dab between the curb and the car’s bumper. Lucky he hadn’t pissed himself. He could still feel the heat of the engine.
But the woman—she was something. There was eye contact between them. Yeah, she definitely made eye contact. Then a hint of a smile and even a slight blush when Cornell licked his lips at her while her escort wasn’t looking. The guy had ducked his bald head to rifle through his wallet. Bastard was probably sorry now that he didn’t have anything less than fifty-dollar bills.
In Cornell’s mind that smile, that blush, screamed to him that in another place, another time, she’d gladly be giving him something more than her boyfriend’s cash. And he took heart in their secret transaction, restoring a small piece of something he had lost but didn’t miss until someone like this gorgeous woman reminded him that he wasn’t who he used to be. Not only who he used to be, but now little more than garbage to be kicked or shoved to the curb. A small piece of him hated her for that, but he did appreciate the hell out of the fifty bucks.
It was more than he’d seen all month. And as if to prove to her, to prove to himself, that beneath the grime and sweat stains he was still that other person who could be charming and witty and smart, Cornell broke the fifty at a corner diner. He even sat at the counter, ordered soup and a grilled cheese. When he paid the bill he asked for ones. The waitress did a double take, turning the fifty over, her eyes narrowing as she examined the bill and then his face.
Cornell just smiled when she finally handed him his change. He folded and stuffed the ones carefully into the side pocket of his threadbare cargo pants, pleased that the button still closed solid and safe over his new stash.
When his food came—soup steaming, melted cheese oozing onto white porcelain—he sat paralyzed, staring at it. He hadn’t seen anything quite so beautiful in a long time. There was a package of cute little crackers and a slice of pickle, utensils wrapped in a crisp white napkin. A cloth napkin. All of it seemed so foreign and for a minute Cornell couldn’t remember what he was supposed to do with real utensils rather than the plasticware they gave you in the soup kitchens.
He resisted looking around. Dishes clanked, voices hummed, machines wheezed on and off, chairs scraped the linoleum. The place was busy, yet Cornell could feel eyes checking him out.
He tugged the napkin open, laid the utensils one by one on the counter, and draped the cloth over his lap. He ignored the stares, pretending that the stink of body odor wasn’t coming from him. He tried to keep his appearance as clean as possible, even making a monthly trip to a Laundromat, but getting a shower was a challenge.
Finally Cornell picked up the soup spoon, stopping his eyes from darting around for direction. He let his fingers remember. Slowed himself down and ate, painfully conscious of every movement so that he didn’t dribble, smack, wipe, or slurp.
Now, as he made his long way back to his cardboard home, he took guarded sips from the brand-new bottle. The food, though delicious, had upset his stomach. The whiskey would help. It always did; an instant cure-all for just about anything he didn’t want to feel or remember or be. Tonight it sped up the long walk and even helped warm him as the night chill set in.
Cornell had barely turned the corner into the alley when he noticed something was wrong. The air smelled different. Rancid, but not day-old garbage. And tinged with something burned.
No, not burned, smoking.
His nostrils twitched. There were no restaurants nearby. The brick building he kept his shelter against had been empty. It was quiet here. That’s all he cared about and usually the Dumpster didn’t overflow or stink. All important factors in his decision to take up residency here in the alley, his Maytag box sandwiched between the wall of the brick building and the monster green Dumpster.
That’s when Cornell realized he couldn’t see his cardboard box. Though hidden, a flap usually stuck out no matter how carefully he tucked it. A sudden panic twisted his stomach. He clenched the bottle tight in his fist and hurried. He hadn’t had that much to drink yet, but his steps were staggered and his head dizzy. The only two blankets he owned were in that box, along with an assortment of other treasures tucked between folds, stuff he hadn’t wanted to lug inside his backpack.
As he walked closer, the smell got stronger. Something sour and metallic but also something else. Like lighter fluid. Had someone started a fire to keep warm?
They sure as hell better not have used his box for kindling.
That’s when he saw a flap of cardboard and a flood of relief washed over him in a cold sweat. The box was still there. It had been shoved deeper behind the Dumpster. The box, however, wasn’t empty.
Son of a bitch!
Cornell couldn’t believe his eyes. Some bastard lay sprawled inside his home, feet sticking out. Looked like a pile of old, ragged clothes if it weren’t for those two bare feet.
He took a long gulp of Jack Daniel’s. Screwed the cap back on, nice and tight, and set the bottle down safe against the brick wall. Then Cornell pushed up his sleeves to his elbows and stomped the rest of the way.
Nobody was taking his frickin’ home away from him.
“Hey, you,” he yelled as he grabbed the ankles. “Get the hell out of here.”
Cornell let his anger drive him as he twisted and yanked and pulled. But he was surprised it didn’t take much effort. Nor was there any resistance. He didn’t stop though, dragging the body away from the container, letting the intruder’s tangled hair sweep across the filthy pavement. Before he released the ankles he gave one last shove, flipping the person over.
That’s when Cornell saw why there had been no resistance.
He felt the acid rise from his stomach. He stumbled backward, tripping over his feet, scrambling then kicking, gasping and retching at what he saw.
The face was gone, a bloody pulp of flesh and bones. Raw jagged holes replaced an eye and the mouth. Matted hair stuck to the mess.
Cornell pushed to his knees just as the soup and grilled cheese came up his throat in a stinging froth mixed with whiskey. He tried to stand but his legs wobbled and sent him back down to the pavement right in the middle of his vomit. His eyes burned and blurred but he couldn’t pull them away from the mangled mess just a few feet away from him.
In his panic he hardly noticed the smoke filling the alley. He tried to wipe himself off and saw that it wasn’t just his vomit he’d fallen into. A slick stain trailed into the alley, as if someone had accidentally leaked a line of liquid all the way to the Dumpster.
That’s when he realized the slick stain that now covered his knees and hands was gasoline. He looked up and saw a man at the entrance to the alley, pouring from a gallon can. Cornell slipped and jerked to his feet just as the guy noticed him. But instead of being startled or angry or panicked, the man did the last thing Cornell expected. He smiled and then he lit a match.
Excerpted from Fireproof by Alex Kava. Copyright © 2012 by Alex Kava. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.