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'That's right," said Ernie Flammio. "No one mentioned your attending derise."

"Impending demise," said Moe Moscalevitch.

"Right. Impending demise," said Flammio.

"What then?" asked Solly Martin.

The two men did not answer him immediately. They called over the bartender, who filled their glasses. They paid for the drink, the first they had bought since bumping into the self-pitying Martin, then took him to a corner of the room, where they sat at a table and talked in whispers.

"We're talking about a fire," said Moscalevitch.

"A fi—" Martin started to speak, but Flammio clapped a big bony hand over his mouth.

"That's right," Moscalevitch whispered. "A fire. Just a match. Snap, crackle, flash, your problems are solved. You collect from the insurance company. You get your money back. You can start over again somewhere else with some other wonderful idea."

Solly was calculating. A fire wasn't bad. He remembered his family always joked about Uncle

Nathan's annual fire, which usually seemed to break out when business turned seasonally bad. A fire had something else going for it, too. It beat suicide, which was the only thing Solly Martin had been able to think of on his own.

"Well," Solly said and took a big drink from his vodka screwdriver. He looked around suspiciously to made sure no one was eavesdropping. The two men nodded approval. "A fire," Solly said. "But how ..."

"The how is up to us," said Ernie Flammio. "We ain't called the Fire Twins for nothing."

Solly could have kissed him. How nice of these two men to help him out this way. It was three drinks later that he realized the help was not just altruistic. It was a $2,000 act of assistance, payable in advance.

He could get that much from his mother without a problem. And then he would find a new business. One that the public would be smart enough to patronize. He was tired of having the public's stupidity make him into a failure. The next time, he would give them what they wanted. They wanted stupid, he'd give them stupid. Boy, would he give them stupid. They wanted hamburgers made out of sawdust, they'd get them. They want chicken with coating made of 712 toxic chemicals, they got it. Fish that no one who had ever smelled an ocean could eat? No problem. He was finished with trying to improve America's life. He was going to give them all what they deserved.

When he woke the next morning, Solly Martin had a terrible headache. It got worse when he remembered what had happened the night before. He wondered if Moe Mosoalevitch and Ernie


Flammio would be waiting for him at the Little Flower of the East Shoppe, but they weren't. Instead, they called him shortly after 11 a.m.

"It won't do for us to be seen there," Moscale-vitch said.

"No. Right," said Solly. He wondered how he could call this whole thing off.

"It'll be tomorrow night, kid," Moscalevitch said. "Just remember, leave the back door unlocked when you go. We'll bust it up so it looked like burglars. And you make sure you're out of town somewhere, so no one can pin anything on you."

"All right," said Solly. He held onto the telephone a moment, building up his courage to tell them to call it off. Then his eyes lighted on the stack of bills sent him by the Iranian, Faud Bani-degh, and he gulped and said, "Yeah. Tomorrow night. All right."

Served them right. Served them all right. Maybe those two could set a fire that would spread all the way to Iran. Maybe he could take his insurance winnings and get Moe and Ernie to burn down Banidegh's office in New York. Maybe . . . maybe . . . and a glimmer of an idea entered Solly Martin's mind.

He knew he shouldn't be there. He knew it was risky. But Solly Martin couldn't stay away from his store the next night. The idea that had been throbbing gently in his brain was beginning to take shape, and he wanted to watch, to learn, to see if something could really be made to work.

To protect himself, he had gone to his mother's for dinner. When she wasn't looking, he had set the kitchen clock three hours ahead, then slipped a


sleeping pill into her glass of Manischewitz grape wine. As he started to nod off at the table, he called her attention to the clock, which read midnight, and told her, "It's midnight, Momma, I think I'll go to bed here, too."

He had put the old woman to sleep, then hustled downstairs into his car and driven up to White Plains. Now he sat, parked in a darkened side street, diagonally across from the front entrance to his store. The Little Flower of the East Shoppe looked even more dismal and forlorn at night that it did in the daytime. No emptier, but sadder somehow.

He waited, hunched down in the car, for almost an hour before he saw someone walking toward the store on the deserted shopping center street.

He had expected Moe Moscalevitch and Ernie Flammio. He had not expected a scrawny young boy with pipecleaner arms sticking out of his raggy T-shirt and pants that were two years and three inches too short.

The boy paused under a street lamp. In Jhe amber-bright light, Martin could see he was about thirteen years old. He had a mop of flaming red hair and a face that looked as if it belonged on a poster urging people to send the underprivileged to summer camp.

The boy looked around, then darted into the alley between Martin's store and the next building. Solly leaned back in his car seat. His brow wrinkled. Who was the kid? The two arsonists had said nothing about a kid helping them.

Only a few minutes later, Moscalevitch and Flammio walked rapidly down the street. Flammic carried a bag. Without hesitating or looking around.


they turned sharply into the alley next to the store and headed for die back. Solly Martin nodded his head. He was satisfied now that the kid had been a lookout.

The back door to Solly Martin's shop wasn't just unlocked; it was wide open, and Moe Moscalevitch grunted his annoyance. The kid Martin was a putz. No one noticed an unlocked door, but an open door was an invitation for neighbors to call the police.

He was about to say something to Ernie Flam-mio, when he heard a sound inside the store and stopped in mid-stride. He wheeled toward his taller companion and raised a finger to his mouth, cautioning silence. Flammio nodded. The two men listened.

Lester McGurl hummed under his breath as he tossed papers from behind Solly Martin's counter onto the floor. He loved it. He just loved it.

He pulled PLO banners off the shelves, opened them and tossed them into one of the corners. When he had first started in the store, he had glanced every few seconds at the front windows to make sure that he wasn't seen, but that caution was forgotten now. He loved what he was doing, and sometimes he wished that people would stop by to watch. He threw more papers onto the floor.

Outside, Ernie Flammio hissed to Moe Moscalevitch, "He's humming 'I don't want to set the world on fire.' "

"No, he's not," said Moscalevitch. "The name of that ditty is 'My Old Flame.' "

"Oh. Something like that," Flammio said. "What's he doing now?"


"I don't know." Moscalevitch was crouched down behind the open door. He peeked into the store. "He's just a kid."

"Maybe that Martin hired him, too."

"No," said Moscalevitch. "Just a free-lancer, I think."

He stood up and walked through the door. Ernie Flammio, carrying the bag containing gasoline and lengths of twine that had been soaked in potassium nitrate and allowed to dry to be used as fuses, followed him.

"What are you doing in here?" Moscalevitch said to the back of young Lester McGurl.

The skinny boy wheeled and looked at the two men. Instinctively, he backed away. In the faint glimmer from the street lights, filling the store with a dull orange glow, he could see their faces. They were adults, and he did not like adults. Not these, not any. He had never seen the men before, but he had seen that kind of face before. He had seen them at orphanages and foster homes, and the faces came connected to heavy, strong hands that had spent years beating on Lester McGurl. Until recently. Until he had found a way to stop the beatings.