I woke up to sunlight slithering past my curtain and into my eyes. I looked at my clock. The red digits informed me it was 7:14. I pushed myself out of bed and got dressed. The day was still young, and I had some more investigating to do, this time not as a police officer.
I checked all of my locks in the basement to ensure that they were properly secured. They were. I ate an orange, then left my home, locking the door behind me.
Now I knew why the arsonists had left the matchbooks they had, but I still needed to find out who these people were. I stopped myself half a block away from home. I realised I would need some money if I was going to get anything done today. Having a matchbook would likely aid me as well. I marched back home to get about twenty dollars and one of the matchbooks before traveling to the nearest store that might sell matches.
I entered the small convenience store, and was greeted by a bell ringing and a man shouting “Hello, let me know if you need anything!”
Perfect, this will save me from wasting time searching shelves. “Yes, sir. Do you sell this brand of matches?” I placed the matchbook on the counter in front of him. He shook his head. “Nope, we only carry lighters. Matches are pretty outdated now-a-days.”
I picked up the matchbook and left. The man shouted at my back “Have a nice day!” I didn’t feel like wasting time acknowledging his work ethic.
I spent the next couple of hours looking around various stores in the slums, looking for stores that sold my matches. It was tedious to say the least. That was mostly because few stores held these matches, and none agreed to let me know who bought the matches. It was something about customer confidentiality. It didn’t matter. I found who I was looking for at one point anyway.
After about three hours of walking and eight stores, I felt a knife press against my back. “You’ve been poking around where you shouldn’t be, civilian.” I laughed. I was certain that upset the knife wielder. “What’s so funny?”
“You made a pun. You poked a knife into my back, then told me I was poking around where I shouldn’t. It was fairly witty, if you don’t mind me saying,” I answered him rather politely. His small knife held no candle to my training with the police. I could humor him all I wanted.
“Cut the cute shit. You’re looking for people you shouldn’t be.”
I cut him off. “Technically, I just found one.”
I felt the knife pull away for a moment, then push back into me. “Damn it. Okay, you’re right. But I still have a knife pressed to your back. One harsh shove into your spine, and you won’t be walking anymore.”
I clapped in response. “You certainly know more than the average person does about anatomy. Where did you study?” He replied with a little more pressure on the knife.
“I said cut the cute shit. Now, tell me what you know.”
I shrugged. “I doubt I know more than you do. Telling you things you know would just waste a learned man’s time. Instead, how about you teach me? I’m more than happy to listen.”
I heard a small tear in fabric, then felt some blood slip down the small of my back. “Fine, I’ll play your game. I’ll teach you as long as you take a pretest and tell me your knowledge, then I won’t waste your time with things you’ve already learned.” I was a bit surprised. This man was more crafty than anyone else I’d ever worked with.
“Good job. You’ve outwitted me. Okay, here’s what I know. Either you or some people you’re scouting for have burned down three buildings. At the third one, they created a calling card by leaving four matchbooks that had four matches left in each around the ashes. I did some research, and concluded that it was in reference to the four horseman of the apocalypse. Right, there are also multiple people starting each fire, just to ensure that most of the house is rendered unusable.” His knife slid out of my back.
“You know more than we expected. We kind of thought the horseman theme would go over everyone’s head. As it is, most people don’t actually read the bible anymore. Our country is just lucky most still know how to read even without public schools. One last question to the pretest: Why are you trying to solve the crimes?” His knife wasn’t digging a hole near my spine anymore, but it still rested on it.
“I’m not trying to solve the crime. I couldn’t care less if some rich people are losing their houses. I’m trying to discover what is being gained besides some cheap laughs at a fire. The matchbooks were too deliberate for you and your friends to just light a fire for no reason.”
“You’re pretty perceptive. Okay friend, let’s go meet the rest of the arsonists. They’ll decide if they want to keep you in or not.” He put his knife away, then clapped me on the shoulder. “I hope you aren’t too angry about the cut, but you were testing my patience. I decided to test yours a little. All’s fair.”
I grunted in reply.
The stranger began to stroll forward, pulling me along. “My name is Ramirez. That ought to tell you why I’m part of this program,” he informed me.
“Ramirez. Interesting. Isn’t that a usually a surname?”
“Yeah, it is. My first name is Harold. I hate it. There should be no reason for me to hide my culture.”
“That’s actually quite ironic. The police force hardly cares about anyone’s race anymore. The stigma against your name is only present in the common citizen.”
“Odd. I thought the police targeted minorities.”
“Not anymore. Now they just target the poor.” Ramirez walked a certain confidence that I hadn’t seen in other races besides white for years. This only made me more curious. What could burning buildings do to create such confidence?
“I have another question for you. How did you stumble onto our matches? They were hidden at the burn site. Well, besides one.”
I had to think fast. His question actually caught me off guard. I chose to avoid the truth, as then he might be suspicious that I’m an insurgent. “I’m a private investigator. The police opted not to investigate at night, so they hired me to take a look while they all slept. Then, I decided to keep the information to myself, for reasons I don’t need to divulge.”
He laughed. “No, no. I get it. You’re in it for whoever pays you the most. Don’t worry, we have guys who know how to get into the banking systems. You’ll be well compensated. At the very least, we’ll buy the evidence off of you then get you out of town. Believe me, we don’t want to get shut down after our third job.”
Ramirez didn’t talk much after that. He told about a couple turns, then kept his mouth shut. He said that Famine could tell me more about their movement than he could. I laughed aloud at hearing that one of their leaders was named Famine. Ramirez insisted it was for anonymity’s sake.
After what felt like long and silent hours- which translated to thirty minutes- we had finally arrived at their headquarters. It was a small, ramshackle cabin. It didn’t look worthy of being anything besides a poor man’s vacation home. It was an intelligent choice.
Ramirez stopped me before opening the door. “I’m going to talk to Famine real quick. I’ll call you in once he’s cool with you entering his home.” His home? Huh. The group ran all of their important meetings inside the homes of their leaders. That was not the smartest choice, but I suppose they didn’t have any other choices. On the bright side, they didn’t have much to lose by planning here.
Ramirez entered the cabin. I waited at the door. A couple minutes passed before Ramirez reopened the door. “You’re in,” he told me, looking a bit smug. He was probably proud of the fact that he talked Famine into letting a stranger in.
I stepped in behind Ramirez. He stepped in a little further and pulled a curtain aside, revealing Famine sitting upon a small chair. Famine was a muscular and well built woman. She was tanner than most people, but she certainly wasn’t Mexican. She looked me up and down. Apparently she was a bit pleased with what she saw.
“Who might you be?” she asked, a sly smile appearing on her face.
“Call me what you like. My legal name was lost to me when I gained the title ‘Officer.’” Ramirez looked shocked, and maybe even betrayed. That wasn’t my problem. I had Famine exactly where I wanted her.
“Oh, Ramirez didn’t tell me you were with the police.” Famine took a gun from a drawer in small table, and set it on top of it. Then she followed up by pulling a knife out of her boot. “I trust you know what you’re doing here.”
“Of course I know what I’m doing. If I wanted you arrested, I would have disabled Ramirez and brought him to the police, where we then would have interrogated him for information before killing him.” I saw Ramirez reach for the knife he had at his waist.
Famine waved her hand at him, and he leaned against the wall with his arms crossed. She followed that by putting away her gun and knife. “What do you want then? Clearly your motives don’t line up with your Commander’s.”
“Commander Holland means nothing to me. Neither does that job. I already gained everything I wanted from it. This seems much more rewarding.”
Famine’s eyebrows raised in surprise and she leaned forward in the seat. Ramirez didn’t move. “You know the name of the one above you. That’s impressive.”
I interrupted anything else she might try to say. “I have his police account. I tamper with his reports whenever I want to. I essentially run my unit of Officers. That would be a very valuable resource for you. The best part is, you’ll get it for free.”
Famine grabbed the knife in her boot, and rushed me. I was prepared for that, and was ready to counter by tearing the knife from her hands and pressing it against whichever one of her cheeks wasn’t pressed to the ground. I raised my hand to her wrist before feeling a sharp kick to my knee. I fell down, and she held my left arm above my head, and her knife to my throat. Her leg was holding down my other arm.
Famine whispered into my ear. “You’re hiding something from me, Officer. No one offers leverage like that without trying to get something in return. I want to know what it is.”
I held my tongue for a moment. The blow to my knee wasn’t strong enough to cause permanent damage, but it would keep me on the ground until at least tomorrow. I didn’t expect Famine to be able to counter my own trained counter.
“Fine. I want to raze the land.” Famine didn’t move. She didn’t speak for a while either.
“You just want to burn things? You don’t want money, you don’t want power, you don’t even want fame? All you want is to destroy?” Famine kept her volume, but she couldn’t hide her surprise.
“Yes. That’s exactly what I want. I just want to light fires. Possibly a quick adrenaline rush while I’m at it.” Famine may have lost her serenity here, but I didn’t.
Eventually, she got off of me. “You’re insane, Officer. But you have an offer I’d be an idiot to refuse. Fine, you’re in. I’ll have Ramirez tell you about our next meeting when you leave.”
I rolled off of my stomach. “Sorry Famine, but you messed up my knee pretty badly. I won’t be walking for a bit.”
Famine sighed. “That’s right, I did do that. Fine, you can stay the night here. It’ll give me more time to see if you’re trustworthy or not, anyway. Ramirez, feel free to leave after our Officer here gives you his address.”
I immediately told Ramirez my address. There was no need to hold him here.
Famine helped me up as Ramirez left. She moved me over to a sofa and helped me sit down. She was surprisingly gentle. It wasn’t a motherly kind of gentle, but it was softer than I expected.
She sat down next to me. “First order of business: I’m not calling you Officer the entire time you work with us, and neither are my followers. What’s your name?”
“I already told you, my name has no standing. I joined the police force, and didn’t even give them my name. I don’t care what you call me.” I wasn’t sure if she was upset or disappointed at hearing that.
“Then I’ll just give you a name. You’re ‘Renegade’ from here on out. You know, because you’re literally choosing to break the rules as an Officer. We’ll call you ‘Ren’ for short. Now, would you like some tea?” I must have looked a bit surprised that she had tea, because she looked smug after mentioning it.
“I’ll accept some tea. I haven’t much in the past.”
Famine laughed. “It’s an acquired taste, let me tell you. I have a surplus, because almost nobody likes the stuff. It’s quite healthy, though. I’ll get a kettle boiling.” She moved across the room, took what I assume to be a kettle out of a cupboard, filled it with water, then put it on her stove to boil. It was now that I realised she didn’t have any rooms besides this one. This was a single room cabin. Her bed sat in a corner, there was a table and some fold out chairs in another, and her kitchen just sat along the wall opposite of this sofa. There was no toilet. I had heard of outhouses before, but I thought they had all been replaced at this point.
“So what do you want to know about us? Ramirez told me all you know, so there must be other questions.” Famine sat back down with me.
She was right: I had questions. “What are you achieving by burning down homes?”
She frowned. “Ah. I should’ve seen that coming. I don’t like burning homes that could be used to house our homeless, but Death insists that we can send a message that way. We’ve been specific to avoid being explicit so far, but after a couple more homes we’re going to make our purpose clear. We want a greater chance at success.
“We’re sick of being pushed around by those richer than us. We’re angry that you can just buy your way to the top of our government. I want a level playing field, and so does everyone else who follows me. We’re burning down homes of the rich in our city, showing them that they aren’t safe just because they have money. They will be just as vulnerable as everyone else who lives here.
“We chose to be the horsemen because that is what the poor have to deal with on an incredibly large scale. Many of the poor die of starvation, many of the poor die from a lack of proper medicine, and fight amongst each other for survival, simply trying to make sure we don’t die young.
“We are here to fight for our right to live.”
I was mildly impressed. These people are trying to start a global movement. They’re all fighting for a cause that wasn’t just money. I used to tell people who were sick of being poor to move to Europe. It was mostly out of irony, because they couldn’t actually afford to. These people believed they should be able to fight for their land. I suppose they did live here, and they did deserve some way to become something more.
These people were trying to revive the American Dream.
I started laughing uncontrollably. The Dream? This is what these people wanted? They were burning homes to utter ruin just to try and bring back a short-sighted fantasy.
Famine didn’t seem satisfied with my response. “You’d better shut your trap before I shut it for you.” I managed to calm down after just a little while more.
“Your protest is trying to revive the American Dream,” I chuckled again, “Isn’t that preposterous?”
Famine got a light in her eyes. “The American Dream.” The kettle began to whistle. “Ah, water’s ready.”
Famine got up and poured the hot water into a couple cups, then put a small pouch into each. She stepped back over and handed me a mug. “You’ll want to wait a couple minutes for the tea to steep properly.” I put the glass on another small table next to the couch.
“I know that you are just a nutjob who wants to watch the world burn and break the status quo, but thank you. Your support will make a world of difference.”
I said nothing.
“Oh, Ren?” I looked at her. “Don’t fuck this up for me.”