"You've gotta help me, Ed! I'm going crazy!" Charley's voice on the phone was gasping, almost incoherent.
"Take it easy. Sit down and take a couple of deep breaths. I'll get over there as fast as I can." I hung up and slammed out of my apartment, not looking back to see if the door latched behind me. The California sun was already blazing hot as I peeled out of my parking lot, but I didn't bother with turning on the air conditioning. Charley and I go back a long way together, and when an old friend sounds that uptight you don't stop to ask any questions. In spite of his image as an aging swinger with a smart mouth, he'd always been a soft touch any time I needed fifty bucks to tide me over until payday.
"My God, Charley! What happened? You look like someone handed you back one of your own loaded cigars."
"Never mind that! Come in, quick!" He looked up and down the hall almost furtively before letting me into his pad and locking the door. I'd been there plenty of times before. I'd always admired and envied the sleek swingle styled condo with its chrome bar and freestanding fireplace. The big circular bed under a mirrored ceiling in his bedroom, too. I'd never quite had the nerve to decorate my own apartment the same way. The nerve, or the ready cash.
The gas log in the fireplace was lit in spite of the morning's warmth. He'd always been a nut about fires. All his life they'd fascinated him, and on picnics or at the beach he could always get one going quicker and better than anyone else.
"You said you had a problem." I fixed my usual rum and coke, watched his hands shake as he poured a double shot of bourbon over the ice in his glass. "Now that I've had a look at you I can believe it. You look like you've been roasted over a slow fire."
"Don't say that!" He twitched all over and poured his drink down in one gulp. It was the first time I'd seen him look nervous since our first year of high school. Even back then he'd been the cool one, never flustered. Making a wide detour around the fireplace he went back to the bar and fixed another drink, this time not bothering with fresh ice. He really did look awful. It was a warm morning, giving promise of being a real scorcher later on but it wasn't hot enough to account for how he was sweating. His shirt was soaked under the arms, his collar was unbuttoned and in spite of his tan his face was as flushed as though he'd been out in the sun too long.
"Don't mention fire!" His attempt at a laugh was shaky, bitter. "I feel like I'm burning up. God it's hot in here!"
"Then turn off that damned gas log! I never could figure out why you had to have it going all the time. You'd have been a natural as a fire bug."
"Yeah, big deal. 'Charley, build us a fire. You're so good at building fires.' Turn it down yourself! No, never mind. I'll do it."
He walked cautiously over to the cone shaped metal fireplace, reaching for the valve handle as though he was afraid it would burn him. As he approached the flames raged higher, and even before he touched the handle it was a roaring inferno that seemed to raise the temperature in the apartment a good ten degrees. He lurched back, gasping, and the flame sank back to a dancing, flickering glow.
"How'd you do that?" As far as I could see he hadn't touched a thing. "Some kind of a gimmick you've rigged up?"
"Don't I wish!" He wiped away a sudden sweat. "You try it and see what happens."
"What the Hell?" I walked over to the fireplace, reached out cautiously. Nothing happened. The handle felt hot against my fingers, but it turned easily. The flames danced higher, sank back down as I turned it back and forth.
"Turn it off!"
"It is off."
The flames sank lower, flickered uneasily for a moment before surging back. I tugged harder on the handle but it was already all the way over to the off position.
"Must be something wrong with the valve." I let go of the handle and stepped back uneasily.
"Let me try it again."
He set down his empty glass and started forward. The flames came to life again with a roar, and we both jumped back.
"It's the same way in the kitchen. I can't even get near the gas range without practically scorching the ceiling."
"Okay. You've got me convinced that there's really something going on, that this isn't just another one of your tricks. Take it from the top. What's going on, and how did it get started? Things were pretty normal up until when we split up last night. You'd had a few drinks, but you were still on your feet."
.... There is more of this story ...