Burn for Me Page 36

“What can I do for you, Ms. Baylor?”

“I was hoping to find out more about your theories regarding the Great Chicago Fire. Bern mentioned that you didn’t think the cow had started it.”

Professor Itou smiled, threw one leg over the other, and braided his fingers on his knee. He looked like someone had just told him a really funny joke and he was still inwardly chuckling over it.

“It’s not something that’s often talked about in historians’ circles. In fact, my research into it has actually made me an object of not so gentle mockery. Academics.” He opened his eyes wide in pretended horror. “Vicious beasts. They’ll rip your throat out if you aren’t careful.”

Bern grinned. I could see why my cousin liked Professor Itou. This one academic clearly didn’t take himself too seriously.

“I’m armed,” I told him. “And if we get in trouble, we can put Bern in front of the door. He can hold off a whole hallway of academics. Nobody will get in.”

Professor Itou’s eyes sparked. “Are you sure you want the full account, because I’m not asked about this that often, and once I start, I will get giddy and might not stop for a while.”

I pulled out my recorder. “Yes, please.”

“Prepare to be amazed.” Professor Itou leaned back. “First the basic facts. It’s 1871 and the summer is very dry. Chicago, which was mostly wood, bakes in the heat, drying up until it becomes a tinderbox. It’s Sunday, October 8, 1871. Night has fallen and everyone is in bed. A few minutes after nine o’clock, Daniel ‘Pegleg’ Sullivan sees a fire through the windows of the barn belonging to his neighbors, Patrick and Catherine O’Leary. He sounds the alarm and runs to save the animals. Firefighters are notified, but they had spent the day before putting out a large fire and they’re tired. They go to the wrong neighborhood, and by the time they find the right house, the fire is blazing. They try to put it out and fail. For two days Chicago burns, until on October 10, rains finally smother the fire. Three hundred people are dead, over a hundred thousand are homeless, and the heart of the city is burned to the ground. The official cause of the fire was never determined. Later a Chicago Tribune reporter writes about the fire, claiming that a cow owned by Mrs. O’Leary kicked a lantern, knocking it into the hay. Mrs. O’Leary becomes a social pariah and dies a few years later, heartbroken, according to her family.”

Professor Itou leaned forward. His face took on a conspiratorial expression. He motioned me closer. I leaned toward him.

He lowered his voice and said softly, as if telling me a great secret, “The cow didn’t do it.”

“No?” I asked.

“No. The reporter admitted later that he added the cow for dramatic purposes. At the time, it fed right into anti-Irish attitudes. Here is another interesting detail: a study of the street proves that Pegleg Sullivan couldn’t have seen the fire from where he had been standing.”

“He lied,” Bern said.

“Exactly!” Professor Itou stabbed the air with his index finger, triumphant. “The Chicago fire was the subject of my undergraduate senior thesis. I have a somewhat obsessive personality, so I obtained a copy of an archived map of Chicago and was busily re-creating the spread of the fire on it by means of painting the buildings with a brush dipped in coffee.”

“Why coffee?” I asked.

“At the time it was the only dye available to me in large quantity. I was a poor college student, but I always had coffee. It was a required food group.” Professor Itou crossed his arms. “As I was mapping out the fire, a roommate of mine, silly practical mortal that he was, came to the kitchen in hopes of using the table for the mundane purpose of making himself a sandwich. He was a pyrokinetic, and he noted that the pattern of the initial burn was eerily consistent with burn rings that occur when a pyrokinetic employs concentric fire. Meaning someone had burned Chicago in circles. The fire had spread north and south, against wind direction. Furthermore, the velocity of the burn indicated presence of magic. Entire neighborhoods had been engulfed in moments.”

Late nineteenth century. The trials of the serum that brought out magic abilities were beginning, but it wasn’t common knowledge yet. It was possible that some early pyrokinetic made it to Chicago. “But why deliberately burn the city?”

Professor Itou raised his hand. “That’s the question I asked myself. I will spare you the full explanation. Here is the short version: the British military was administering serum to some of its officers in an effort to maintain its grip over the Commonwealth. One of these officers was Colonel Rudyard Emmens. The colonel had spent most of his service to the British Empire in “the Orient.” Unfortunately I could never quite figure out which part of the Orient. Eventually he retired to Chicago. We do not know for sure what his talent had been, but we do know from his personal journals that it had to do with fire. He was very conflicted about it. He was equally disturbed that these “hellish” powers had passed to his only son, Edward. At the time of the Chicago fire, Edward was eighteen. Here’s an interesting account: according to a noted Chicago historian, the center of the city remained extremely hot for almost two days after the fire died down. When firefighters were finally able to enter the steaming wreck that was Chicago, they found Edward Emmens in the middle of it. He was exhausted, dehydrated, and smeared in soot but otherwise unharmed.”

Only a pyrokinetic mage could stand in the middle of an inferno and survive. “Was he a Prime?”

“You would think so, but no.” Professor Itou grinned. “His magic was classified as Notable later in his life.”

“That seems an awful lot of power for a pyrokinetic mage of Notable rank,” I said.

“Indeed.” Itou turned around, peered at the bookshelves, and pulled out a red book. “David Harrisson, one of Chicago’s twenty-six police lieutenants at the time, took a particular interest in this occurrence and in the causes of the fire. Nobody knows what he actually found, because the powers that be seemed to have suppressed his investigation, but years later he began publishing crime fiction under the pseudonym John F. Shepard.” Itou flipped the book open. “‘The Devil’s Fire.’ A short story about a young man who steals his father’s prized African artifact and uses it to burn down Boston.”

He showed me the page and snapped the book closed.

“There exists a deathbed confession by one Frederick Van Pelt, detailing how he and three other young men met with Edward Emmens, who had taken a magical object from his father and was going to show them wondrous things. They met up at a barn whose owners were known to call it an early night, and they paid a local man to keep watch. He claimed that after the fire, the magical object was broken into three pieces and each piece was hidden away.”

I put two and two together. “So let me make sure I got it. Rudyard Emmens brings home some sort of artifact with him from somewhere in Asia. Then years later, his son uses it to impress his friends, loses control, and burns down Chicago?”

Professor Itou looked at me for a long second and smiled. “Yes.”

“How did it go with the senior thesis?” Bern asked.

Professor Itou’s eyes got really big. He waved the book around. “Funny you should mention it. I got terribly excited. I had all my sources. I worked for weeks. I had written a paper that would’ve made angels weep. I was the last to present my thesis before a panel of professors. They listened to me, nodded, and offered me a full graduate scholarship. Guaranteed admission, BA to PhD track, all expenses paid. Just one small thing—my thesis couldn’t be published. It wasn’t in the public’s interest.”

“They bribed you,” I guessed.

He leaned forward and tapped the book on the table to underscore his point. “And I took it. Back then I took it because I was poor and had no choice. Now I would’ve taken it for a completely different reason. The existence of amplification artifacts has been debated for years. We know that some people develop magic powers without the serum, and we know that magical objects can be created, so there is a possibility that an item which makes your magic stronger does exist. If such an artifact could be found, only tragedy would come from it. If it could be controlled, it would be given to a Prime and turned into a devastating weapon. If it couldn’t be controlled, any attempt to do so would result in a natural disaster. It’s best for this theoretical artifact to stay hidden. It is a lesson for us and a legacy of Colonialism. Stealing another nation’s treasures never turns out well.”

Edward Emmens was a Notable, a third-tier mage, and he had burned down Chicago. Adam Pierce was a Prime. If he managed to get his hands on such an artifact, he would go nova. Cold worry squirmed through me. Would anything be left after he was done?

“Do you know what it was?” Bern asked. “The artifact?”

Professor Itou shook his head, his face mournful. “No. I’ve tried to find out over the years, but I’ve failed. We don’t even know where it came from. We know it was most likely of Far Eastern or possibly Middle Eastern origin, but the cultural heritage of both is so rich and varied. It’s like looking for a needle in the proverbial haystack.”

I pulled out my phone and showed him a picture of the jewelry. “Could it be something like this?”

“Possibly.” Itou frowned and spread his hands. “Remember, we’re talking about Orient, meaning ‘East,’ an outdated term by modern standards, which took on different meanings through the years. In the 1800s, this term came to mean mostly India, China, and the Far East, but we can’t discount the Middle East. The Orient Express, for example, went to Istanbul. I could probably tell you more if I could get my hands on the Emmens family documents, but the family’s descendants refuse to speak to me. It would take someone with a lot more clout than I can scrape together.” He exhaled and waved his arms. “I’ve let it go.”

“What does this jewelry look like to you?” I asked. It never hurt to ask . . .

“An old TV antenna?” Itou frowned. “I’m afraid I’m not much help.”

“Thank you so much for the information. One last question: is there anyone in your department we could talk to about the artifact?” I asked.

Professor Itou grinned. “Magdalene Sherbo would be the one. Unfortunately she is currently in India as part of her educational outreach. We could try emailing her, but her email access is sporadic, and she is notorious for not checking her account. You might get an answer in a month or so. I once sent her an invitation to my wife’s baby shower. Two months later, she replied that she would love to come just as I was sending pictures of the baby to everyone with an email account.” He chuckled.

“Could we have her email address just in case?” Bern asked.

Professor Itou jotted an email address on a yellow sticky pad and handed it to Bern.

“Thank you again,” I said.

“Is the artifact about to surface?” he asked.

“I believe so,” I said.

All humor drained from Professor Itou’s face. He took out his wallet and extracted a photograph. On it a woman of Asian descent, her dark hair loose, stood next to two boys against the backdrop of a massive tree. The boys looked a lot like Professor Itou, with the same smart, mischievous sparkle to their eyes.

“This is my wife and children.”

“Your family is beautiful,” I told him.

“We live here, in the city. If the artifact is uncovered and someone attempts to use it here, in Houston, people will die. The Great Chicago Fire left three hundred people dead. The population density within our city is many times that of Chicago on the cusp of the twentieth century. If this artifact falls into the wrong hands—and really there are no right hands for it—the casualties will be catastrophic.”

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