Roy Bradley sat on the balcony of his condominium, watching the fog roll in across San Francisco Bay. He absentmindedly rolled the wheel of the mouse along his blog Write2it and contemplated 10 reasons why a sharpie is mightier than the sword. He knew the answer, of course, but still perhaps one more rewrite. But his heart was not into it as he once more, gazed upon the headline from the Los Angeles Times and began to ponder the significance of an anniversary of sorts. He loosened the bow in his tie, filled his pipe again, sat back and relived again what he could still picture in his mind. That ironic smile or just a tinge of a grimace, reminiscent of that cat from that children’s story he had read his daughters; about all he could truthfully remember. But in the stretching of the years, the scene had stretched also, until the canvas of it had become distended and thin, not a cat so much as a lion, grabbing a lion by the tail. Still his mind was trained to fill in empty spaces, so like a monopoly game he filled it with houses sometimes a hotel.

Roy closed his eyes and began a quick meditation, allowing the scenario to be pieced together in his mind oh those twenty years ago. The rain had just died down to a drizzle, he imagined he could smell it in the air.  He sensed there had been some trouble in the bar, but puddles illuminated the field behind the bar leading him to the beachhead and standing before him was the vision he sought. Two figures, a man and a woman, stood alone soaked by the rain. The man gave him that smile just before the flames began to lick their bodies. Roy tried to run to them, but the flame burst blue and he found himself shielding his eyes. Once he could see again, the flames were shooting up into the sky. Both began to scream, the man in horror as the flames engulfed him, the woman seemingly untouched by the blaze, but was screaming in a foreign tongue. She tore away from the burning shape, as if he were a manikin melting before her. Roy stood startled, as a man approached and flung a jacket over the woman’s shoulders. She appeared to be in shock, as was Roy; the woman was passed over to a uniformed cop, who took her away. Roy’s meditation went back to the smile, there was always something troubling about that smile—a lingering hint of disdain.

At the time, Roy had headed up the art fraud division of the FBI, as he had majored in Art at Berkeley, his true love; to the point that he began a dissertation on Guernica by Picasso. What had begun as a simple robbery had transformed into a sordid mess that left everyone missing or dead in its wake. It had all revolved around the Dali painting, Portrait of Juan de Pareja Adjusting a String on His Mandolin that had been housed in the New Orleans Museum of Art on loan from the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg. It had been a daring break-in during the early afternoon hours that left the NOPD pondering how it could have been accomplished.

It appeared to be open and shut; during the lunchtime closing, the perp had somehow materialized inside the museum, taken the painting down, rolled it up and calmly disappeared again with a priceless Dali. No witnesses, no evidence, just the manipulated frame. By then the painting was long gone and, because it was on loan from St Petersburg, Florida, a federal crime. That was when Roy had been brought into the case. Because of the multiple jurisdictions, Roy’s division had been brought in to sort out the mess. The surveillance tapes clearly showed an empty room; however, it was later discerned by time code and peripheral movement that they were merely looking at a snapshot of that very room, hung up in front of the camera. The brash cleverness of the thief earned Roy’s grudging respect. So simple and yet so effective, the guards were unaware until the gallery reopened and people began disappearing into the room. After hours spent watching the surveillance tapes, Roy kept going back to a curiosity on the tape. The same man each day not trying to hide from the camera hell, he even smiled and waved with that same ironic grin—Dallas Richards. What ensued was a rollercoaster ride, leading him from New Orleans to Texas, then out west to Los Angeles. It left him embroiled in a money train heist, a Mob confrontation, and eventually, to a spontaneous combustion outside of a bar at Point Magu in California.

Roy listened for the whistle of the kettle as he contemplated his options, contemplated his future. That was twenty years ago and the years hung heavily upon him. After 911, his unit had been cut from twelve to three to make way for the new homeland security initiatives and, when the economy caved, the Art Fraud Division had been liquidated to make room for more covert operations; nobody cared about crime as an art form anymore. Now, he spent his working hours relegated to investigating Chinese Businessmen out of favor with the present regime, fifteen more years of rooting through bookkeeping audits and obsolete tax forms until retirement or forced retirement. He was a good investigator, my blood’s so mad feels like coagulating but the life of excitement and adventure he had dreamed of when he entered the bureau had never really panned out. He had his wife, a loving mother, and his children, both rebelling without a cause; he had his boat. He had the American dream shy of a condo in Maui, or a lover in Oakland.

He doggedly did his job coursing from one clue to another, reading the faces of the harried people he interviewed. The highlight of his career was all circumstantially linked to the theft of the Dali; his only investigation that evolved into a real murder case ok, some of the Chinese had committed murder or worse, mostly human trafficking. The Palmodoro case had grown from the Dali investigation: tracking Dallas Richards from Texas to LA, then the money train heist could never pinpoint the motive the confrontation with the mobster Palmodoro, following the leads they were one step ahead of us from one killing to the other, until all that remained he seemed to use them as fall guys was Dallas Richards. He thought for sure they had enough to bring a life sentence for Palmodoro, but once the proceedings began evidence had been tampered with, several protocols were questioned, his lawyers were exceptional, the only charge they had left was tax evasion and that brokered a mere fine.

Then there was the mystery of the painting, it had vanished in thin air once again. And that rainy night on the coast; the only case Roy had ever encountered that had been charged with a riddle both intriguing and beguiling, the only case that had challenged his stoic belief in what he conjectured to be reality. The only real mystery he had come across in his twenty-five years of service. He had solved more cases than he had screwed up; but still there was that one case, the case he had never truly given up on. The bastard had gotten away with it. Disappeared into thin air; or so his analytical mind had to conclude to be a point of fact; vanished a second before the combustion. And the bastard smiled at me, as he was going.

This time he did hear the whistling of the kettle and he tugged on the sleeve of his grey striped Brioni suit with Jacquard stitching, as he rose to steep his Himalayan Splendor Black Tea, he had become so enamored with. He meticulously soaked the tea ball into the water and allowed the fragrance to waft into his beaklike nostrils. Once again, he glanced at the file sitting on the kitchen table as he walked back, cup in hand. Why he had pulled the file, that very file as he rummaged in his desk earlier was a subtle mystery, I’m sittin here just contemplatin much more exciting than a case dealing with chasing down and extinguishing hobos, but the similarities were intriguing. As he reread the file, he began taking detailed notes for his own contemplation. Something about the cases today had conjured up that night twenty long years ago. Perhaps it was merely the combustion angle; perhaps it was just a hunch. But he didn’t believe in hunches, not until after the case was solved, that was his faith in hope.

He had not looked at the file in a number of years, but whenever a case had gotten to him or a case of similar nature appeared, he opened the bottom drawer and pulled out the folder. This new combustion case resembled certain aspects of the earlier one and sent his mind back to those days. This time there were multiple combustions, no apparent motive at least no Plamodoro goons hanging around, no suspects the big guy in the truck?, no witnesses except Ms Diamond, no rational explanation to sink a tooth into. It had yet to receive national coverage that is until now. Once the celebrity darling had been included in the assaults, once Trump began texting the case would begin to pick up not only the rag magazines, but the rag TV stations as well. Fox News would have a field day blaming terrorists for every new spontaneous combustion that ensued and Roy knew that others would emerge. Just like twenty years ago, he had to find a way to ingratiate himself within the case, even it meant going outside of his authority; needed to for his brother-in-law and sister, needed to for his own sanity.

He read through the report to help his mind’s eye. On call, my anniversary, Helen fraught.  Located suspect at a topless bar, Cheatahs. Suspicion of trafficking, crossed state lines, informant claimed a double-cross, claimed suspect a witness to murder; there would be murder to pay. Money train robbed, perhaps make a deal, if we can find him before they do. Finally, he would have Palmodoro; can’t switch the truth, it knows no regulation all they had to do was get there in time and whisk this Dallas character to safety. Then the call on the local ban. Disturbance, two men, Caucasian, bar brawl. Fitting description, check it out. Creepy strip club, Palmodoro’s owner, men insolent some bleeding, they point outside. I follow, leave Jonesy behind for interview. A statuesque man in a Ford pick-up; a woman screaming prostrate in the sand. In front of her, a torch burning sky high into the night, a figure engulfed in the flame. See him for just an instant, positive make. He turned to the woman smiling, then vanished into thin air, the bastard. Pick-up screeches out of there. Wanted to tell him that his buddy was dead; he must have known. Check, may be responsible. Paparazzi freak grabbing the girl. Girl babbling, kicking and cursing, gave him a nose bleed, her dialect not from here, seemed almost autistic. Handed her over to local authorities, last we saw of her. Could be spontaneous combustion, but the girl not burned, no DNA, a strange smell; citrus. It brought back a little. Mostly his wife and he having it out; they’ll last but never like before. His kids missed him too; they would get over that. He was independent most of his life, maybe just half by now, but in his youth, before Helen, before the FBI. He was determined to have a talk with both of the kids soon.

The coffee blend had worked its wonder: he would instigate himself into the investigation, take the brunt of the media onslaught, he would reopen the original case; the one he had been dreading to reopen, but giddy with anticipation to solve; the only viable thing he had left to be surprised at. He could not put his finger on it; but, if there was even the remotest chance, he would take it to catch this Dallas Richards.