FIEND OF FIRE
by Eando Binder
HARLOW MAXON felt pretty good as he stuffed his pipe and prepared to settle back for a smoke. He was safe now. His big problem had been settled — completely. He could relax now and enjoy life.
Maxon lit the match and held it to his pipe, ready for a good smoke. But suddenly, the match flame hissed and sprang toward his eyes, like a live thing! With a yelp of pain and fright, Maxon flung it down and stamped on it, breathing hard.
Why had the match acted like that? Maxon calmed down. "Oh, just a defective one," he told himself. "I'll try another."
Lighting another match, he held it gingerly at arm's length, in case it would act up too, but it's flame was normal and steady. Sighing in relief, he brought it to his pipe, puffing. But again, amazingly, the flame suddenly expanded lividly and hissed toward his face as if to burn his eyes out!
Cursing, bewildered, Maxon flung it down. But the flame was not out and the rug caught fire, fiercely. It did not seem like a normal flame at all as a patch of rug swiftly burned and widened. Maxon had all he could do to stamp it out with both feet, crushing it underfoot!
Maxon stood there panting, but more puzzled than frightened. Matches just shouldn't act that way. And he was annoyed too. How could he light his pipe and enjoy a smoke? Well, skip it, he told himself reluctantly.
He settled back and picked up the paper, forgetting the incident. What did it matter, for there, in the news columns, were the words that made him safe —MAN DIES IN FLAMING AUTO! The text went on to state that driving down the street, John Begget's car suddenly caught fire and the trapped driver was burned to death within, an unfortunate accident.
"Accident," gloated Harlow Maxon to himself. "Sure it was an accident — planned by yours truly! I killed him, but nobody suspects!"
It was a common enough story. Maxon had borrowed heavily from John Begget, his friend, to indulge his taste for gambling. Losing steadily, he had kept putting off Begget. until in anger, Begget threatened to have him arrested and jailed. Maxon had been unable to raise the money. So what else was there to do but silence Begget? Get him out of the way? That solved everything — at least in the unscrupulous mind of Maxon. And so he had secretly planted the thermite-bomb in Begget's car, leading to its explosion and complete burning.
That had been this morning. And now, tonight, Maxon was a free man, safe from the law. He dropped the paper with a satisfied smirk, settled back, and started to light his pipe.
But he had forgotten. Again there was a deadly hiss as the small flame grew and shot at his face like a fireball! Maxon stamped it out in a hurry, choking, with a slow dread clutching at his heart. Looking in a mirror, Maxon saw that his eyebrows had been singed that time.
Cursing, eager for his smoke, Maxon went Into the kitchen and turned on one burner of the gas-range. It was automatic. He needed no matches. But at the moment the burner went on, its blue flame gave a hiss and shot toward him in a long searing tongue like a striking snake!
Maxon staggered back. The flame seemed to search for him, curling and twisting through the air. Horrified, Maxon dropped to his knees and was thus able to reach up and turn off the gas. The flame died just before it reached the hair on his head.
Trembling and shaken, Maxon went back to the living room and pulled an easy chair up to the fireplace. He had lit the fire before and needed to bask in its warm glow, and recover from his jitters over the weird events that had just happened.
"Ah, this is better," he mumbled, stretching his hands toward the dancing flames.
But abruptly, they were dancing flames no longer. With a roaring hiss much louder than before, a sheet of flame burst from the fireplace toward Maxon. Screeching, Maxon leaped from the chair and stumbled back, barely in time, out of range.
The long ribbon of flame from the fireplace seemed to reach for him like clutching hands, even though he ran the length of the room. After him the fiery hands came, as if there was no escape!
And then Maxon was in the corner of the room: trapped. He turned at bay, moaning. He waited for the searing hot touch on his body, shuddering, whining in fear . . .
But then, most eerie of all, the flame took form slowly—human form. And its hiss became a mocking voice that said—"No, I won't kill you this soon. Not before you suffer torment and know what I am. Look at me, Harlow Maxon! Don't you see who I am?"
Maxon's eyes bulged. taking in the human shape that the flame had formed. "No, it can't be!" Maxon moaned. "It can't be you—John Begget!"
"Yes, John Begget, your victim," hissed back the fire-spirit. "In flames I died —and in all flames I live again! Don't try to understand, Maxon. It is something beyond the mundane. I was able to make those match flames dart in your eyes before. I made the gas flame leap at you. And now I've come for you out of the fireplace. Call me a fire ghost or whatever you will, but now you will die as I died—in fiery torment!"
And with a ghastly. hollow laugh, the fire spirit clutched for Maxon with its flaming hands . . .
But Maxon remembered the fire-extinguisher nearby, enclosed in a wall niche. Somehow he grabbed it out and swung the nozzle at the flame form. The fine spray beat it back. The fire ghost retreated before him and Maxon reached the fireplace, putting out the whole fire there. Only then did he stop, feeling that he had won out in this mad duel to the death with the fire fiend.
But one last ember glowed, and a somber hiss echoed in the air, forming words. "You have won for now, Maxon. But you can't escape me. Remember, I can strike at you from any flame—anywhere—anytime! You can't es-cape me!"
"Yes, I will!" shouted back Maxon. "It's simple—I'll just avoid all flame. It's as simple as that!"
In the following. days, Maxon carried out his grim campaign. He stopped smoking. He would never light a match again. And he could do without fires in the fireplace easily enough. As long as he kept away from flame, he was safe. In his daily life among others at the race track or gambling casino, it was not hard to keep away from those lighting matches nearby. With care, he could keep out of range of all open fire, in any form.
He had one bad moment when some friends dropped in one evening, surprising him on his birthday. One of the girls came out of the kitchen with a birthday cake and lighted candles, as they all sang the familiar birthday song to him. Maxon stared horrified and then dumped a bottle of soda, snuffing out the candles. He had acted like a maniac and ruined the evening, but once more he had foiled the fire ghost.
Maxon was triumphant, getting a sort of twisted joy out of his strange duel with the supernatural. By sheer persistence, he'd win out.
Even on a hunting party in the winter season, Maxon took care not to sit near the blazing fire they built when having lunch. He almost froze, sitting, away from the heat, but he was safe!
Safe that is, until a whipping wind kicked up sparks and before they knew it, a brush fire had blazed up! The others fought the flames, but Maxon ran—only to be blinded by smoke. Staggering, coughing, he was suddenly faced by a wall of fire, out of which a fiery shape loomed hugely, with a hissing roar of laughter. The fire ghost again!
Long arms of flame shot toward him. but Maxon saw his salvation not far off—a running brook. Without hesitation, he plunged into the icy waters, safe from the fire spirit, until his friends succeeded in beating out the last of the fire.
Even in the hospital, where his friends hastened him after the icy plunge, Maxon was happy. He was safe from fire—safe from the fire ghost. Safe from being consumed by a fiery vengeance from beyond . . .
MAXON suddenly started, his spine crawling. What was that the doctor was saying?
"Fever! A very high fever—one hundred and five! We can't bring it down! Poor chap!"
Maxon's eyes alone saw the wraith-like shape that sat on his chest, in glowing outline, grinning. He heard the soft hiss of the fire ghost's words — "Fever is a form of 'fire' too, Maxon! Fever consumes the sick body just like a fire! Didn't I tell you there was no escape? . . ."
From Beware! Terror Tales, July 1952. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.