Threading his way through the charred ruins, Zack stumbled over a body.
What the... ? I thought everyone was rescued...
He jumped back as the body sat up, sneezed and opened it's eyes. He found himself gazing into red and pink orbs that seemed to glow from within. The soot begrimed face was that of a woman, who grinned at him showing perfect white teeth.
"You sure know how to awaken someone," she purred in mock irritation, giving Zack an exaggerated wink. "Are you a man or a fish?"
Zack shut his gaping mouth.
"How did you ... uh ... ahh..." he sputtered as the woman stood up in one lithe movement, soot and ashes falling from her body. She appeared to be young with a shapely figure, hair a reddish-yellow waterfall over her shoulders and clad in a tunic the color of drifting smoke.
"Oh my, a conversationalist too," she quipped. He would have sworn her voice sounded like crackling flames. "I stopped by to take a nap. I didn't expect company. I'm sorry the place is such a mess."
"Who are you? How did you survive the fire? We couldn't get near enough to fight it effectively. The paint and solvents burned at over 800 degrees. The foam could barely..."
He stopped suddenly, realizing he was babbling while she looked at him; her head cocked to one side and an amused grin on her face.
"Would you like to see how it started?" she asked playfully.
"Uh ... yeah ... sure."
"Follow me. No, wait a moment..."
A smoldering roof truss groaned and came crashing down before them in a blizzard of sparks. Zack flipped his facemask down as cinders peppered him. The woman stood calmly in the swirling cloud, unscathed.
"Now, it's right over here," she continued, stepping easily over the debris. Zack glanced down. Her feet were bare! Yet she walked through the glowing embers as easily as a cool green lawn. He shook his head and followed her, boots crunching, feeling heat through the thick soles.
"Here we are," she said, stopping before a wall of electrical panels. With a screech of torn metal, she effortlessly lifted one and pointed to a small skeleton.
"It was a rat gathering wires to make a nest. Completed a circuit, shorted the panel out and the whole place went up. I felt it from where I was and decided it was time for a nap. I love sleeping in a roaring fire, don't you?"
Zack lifted his face mask, stared at the skeleton, then at the woman, then at the jagged panel.
She pulled that panel apart as if she was turning the page of a book. What is she anyway?
The woman smiled at him again.
"I like you. You're cute. You needn't be afraid of me," she glanced at his name stripe, "Zack Pearson."
He felt sweat rolling down his spine.
"Who are you? What are you? I never..."
"My name is Mandy. I'm a Fire Elemental."
"A fire what?"
"A Fire Elemental, remember the four elements Earth, Air, Fire and Water? I'm Fire, but I'm different from the other Elementals. I'm half human. My mother is a Sorceress, my father a Vulcanus ... they fell in love and here I am."
"I do not believe this," Zack muttered. "I must have hit my head or something. I'm dreaming."
Mandy reached out and pinched Zack's nose. He cried out in pain. The touch of her fingers was like burning coals.
She pinched him again, and the pain was gone. He gingerly touched his nose it was unharmed.
"Okay, you're an Elemental ... you play with ... I mean you're fire. What are you doing here, besides taking a nap?"
"I played one too many pranks on the Lava Imps. They hate water balloons. The Supreme One banished me to this plane of existence until I learn to behave myself. I get my sense of humor from my mother, she's always doing mischief. Father shrugs and tends to his volcanoes."
Zack sighed; this was too much to comprehend. She wasn't lying, that was certain.
"Now that you've done my job for me, I guess I'll be going. Can I drive you somewhere Miss ... um ... Mandy?"
"You're cute. I like you a lot. Can I go home with you?"
Zack hesitated, he spent little time in his apartment, usually taking his meals and sleeping at the firehouse. When his wife Sheila had left him five years ago to 'find herself', he continued the lease hoping she would return, but knowing deep down she would not.
In spite of his desire to be alone with his memories, there was something about this ... this elemental ... that intrigued him. She was happy and smiling, two things he seldom was or did. Why not, she's beautiful ... and she likes me.
"Sure. C'mon, I have to stop by the station for a minute then we'll go to my apartment."
She flashed him a dazzling smile and her eyes glowed.
"Oh goodie, do I get to ride in one of those automobile things?"
"Haven't you ever ridden in a car before?"
"No. The last time I was here, there were wagons and oxcarts."
"Huh? Just how old are you," he blurted, forgetting his manners.
"I'm not sure. Mother was a Grecian sorcerer when she conjured Father by mistake ... I was born not too long afterward ... I guess about a 1,000 human years or so. Time means nothing when you're in the Supreme One's Realm."
"A thousand years? That's impossible."
"Hee ... Hee ... you're doing that fish face again. Nothing is impossible in the Realm."
Zack sighed. This was all too much. A 1,000-year-old woman who could sleep in a roaring fire seemed impossible, but whatever she was, he couldn't just leave her here.
"Wait a minute while I take some photos, then we'll go."
While he was photographing where the fire started, Mandy amused herself by examining Zack's red sedan, the words 'Arson Investigation Division' emblazoned in gold leaf on the doors. She looked curiously at the vehicles hood, then shimmered and disappeared.
Zack came walking up to the car wondering where she had gone when she reappeared, wiping a smear of grease from her cheek.
"I was curious about what made this thing go. It's a series of rapid, constrained detonations. My father would be interested in this, being into explosions and all."
Zach shook his head. This is not happening.
"You went inside the motor?"
"I didn't touch anything, just looked around. Pretty dirty in there I'll have you know."
Zack pressed the lock fob and opened the door so Mandy could enter. She tripped delicately to the opening, peered inside and gracefully sat down. The hem of her tunic rode up revealing shapely thighs; Zack couldn't help but stare. She saw him and winked.
He hurriedly closed the door and walked back to the car's trunk, removing his helmet, fireproof suit and boots. His t-shirt and jeans were soaked with sweat, sticking to him like a second skin. Sliding behind the wheel, Zack started the engine and turned the air conditioning on full blast.
Mandy stared at the air conditioning vents, and then settled back in her seat, looking out the window. Putting the car in gear, Zack drove to Fire Station Number Seven where he parked, told Mandy he'd be a few minutes and left the car running.
When he returned, the car's interior smelled of scorched plastic. Mandy was sitting innocently in her seat. The acrid fumes made him cough.
"Mandy, what did you do?"
She lifted in her seat showing him the melted cushion, her tunic unmarked.
"I was cold, so I warmed up. I didn't mean to damage your car."
"I guess I had the air on too high, huh?"
"Well," she giggled, "Maybe just a little."
They drove to Zack's apartment complex with the windows open.
"What a nice home you have here," Mandy said as she walked about the living room.
Zack was still trying to figure how he was going to explain the ruined car seat to the maintenance crew at the city garage. He mumbled "thanks" as he locked the door. Shelia had decorated the apartment and it was as she left it; Zack hadn't changed a thing. One of the few women he'd dated had called it a 'shrine'.
Mandy was looking at the volumes in the bookcase when Zack said "If you'll excuse me for a few minutes, I need to shower."
"Sure, no problem," she replied and continued looking.
Throwing his sodden clothing into the wash hamper, he turned on the water and was soon luxuriating under the warm spray. The stall door opened abruptly and Mandy was standing there, her eyes softly glowing. She looked appraisingly at Zack's broad chest, narrow waist, muscular arms and legs.
"Want some company?"
Not waiting for an answer, she pulled the tunic over her head and joined him in the shower. Mandy had a classic figure, reproduced in thousands of sculptures throughout history. Her breasts were plump and rounded; her waist was thick; her hips ample, her legs long and shapely, buttocks round and firm, her skin like velvet and pleasantly warm.
Their lovemaking was rapid, intense and the love they felt for one another was immediate. Neither had spoken, no words were needed. They reached the peak of desire together.
They lay entangled for several minutes, staring groggily at each other, overwhelmed by the intensity of their lovemaking, water cascading over them.
"Water's getting cold."
"I'll fix it."
The showerhead glowed and the water ran hot once more. Zack grinned and Mandy winked at him.
"I guess we better dry off."
Zack shut off the water, opened the stall door and handed Mandy a towel. She shook her head, motioned for him to step out and became enveloped in a cloud of steam, and then said, "All dry" as she fluffed her long hair with her fingers.
"What would you like to eat?" Zack asked, rummaging in the refrigerator, "We can always order in."
"Let me think," Mandy replied. "The last meal I had, I shared a roasted ox with some nice men in green uniforms..."
"Sorry, fresh out of ox," Zack said as he closed the refrigerator door. "How about some barbecue?"
"Barbecue? Oh yes, Caribbean style cooking. That sounds good. I'll have roast pig."
"A pork platter? Sure, what do you want with it?"
"The pig will be fine."
"Wait. You want a whole pig?"
"Why yes. You can remove the head, I don't care for that."
"You can eat a whole pig by yourself?"
"Of course, but I'll share with you."
"I don't think a whole pig is on the menu, how about two jumbo pork plates?"
"I guess that would be all right."
Zack began phoning in the order when Mandy pressed herself against his back, nuzzled his neck and began teasing him. He could barely get the words out to complete the order, and then dropped the phone. He turned around and they began hugging and kissing, rubbing against each other. Mandy's skin was warm with desire as they slid to the cool tile floor and made love again. Satiated, they kissed and stroked each other.
"I knew you were a mighty lover the minute I saw you," Mandy purred.
Zack could only groan in response. Then the doorbell rang.
"Oh goodie, the food's here," Mandy said excitedly. Before Zack could move she sprang to her feet, ran to the door and pulled it open, crushing the knob and tearing the latch and deadbolt from the door frame. An astonished delivery boy stood there, his eyes wide.
"Oh my, that smells good," Mandy said, smiling at the gaping young man. "Does everyone do that fish imitation around here?"
She plucked the bags from his grasp and carried them to the kitchen table. Zack said, "Wait a minute, I'll get my wallet."
"Oh ... er ... no problem," the boy replied. "Just stop by and pay us when you get a chance." He stared at Mandy's naked beauty once more and ran down the hall.
She was already devouring her plates of food when Zack sat down. She swallowed and said "This is very good, can we order some more?"
Zack nodded and grinned. She was an amazing ... whatever she was.
"Zack, this is the fourth fire in a space of six weeks. Headquarters is convinced we've a serial arsonist running loose." Captain Cartwright ran his hand through his thinning brown hair as he paced back and forth. "Every investigator in the department is looking for this person and we don't have a single lead. There's no trace of flammable liquids or materials, but three factories have burned to the ground ... then, of course, there's your rat, which makes four. How the heck did you discover that animal started the fire anyway?"
"I had some help..." Zack began, when a chorus of hoots and whistles erupted from outside the Captain's office.
"What the devil is going on?" Cartwright muttered. He moved to the door in time to see Mandy strutting towards him, a crowd of firefighters following her like hounds after a fox. Zack looked over the Captain's shoulder, smiled and said, "That's my cousin, Cap'n. I asked her to meet me here for lunch." Cartwright didn't answer, just stared.
Zack had shown Mandy the closet full of clothes his wife had left behind and told her to wear whatever she liked. One thing was sure; Shelia had never looked as sexy as Mandy did in her clothes.
She had chosen the skimpiest of tops and shorts in bright red and yellow, sandals with high heels that emphasized her long shapely legs and round buttocks. She was not wearing a bra and her breasts bounced gently under the thin fabric. Mandy's reddish yellow hair floated down her back as she smiled and winked at the jostling crowd of men.
As she came near she said, "Hi Zack. Who's your friend?" She patted the stunned Captain's cheek, "You're cute."
Zack could barely keep from laughing as he said, "Captain, I'd like you to meet my Cousin Mandy from New Zealand. She's here for a visit. Mandy, this is my boss, Captain Cartwright."
Mandy hugged the astonished man and kissed him. "Oh hello, it's nice to meet you."
Cartwright's face turned bright red as the men made appreciative noises.
"Ah ... ahem ... a pleasure to ... um ... meet you Miss..." He stammered.
Zack eased past him saying, "I'll check on those factory sites after lunch, Cap'n."
They drove away, leaving a fire station in turmoil.
"I really liked those taco things," Mandy said. "There are so many interesting foods to try. What will we have for dinner?"
"Dinner? You ate two dozen tacos and you want dinner?" Zack replied incredulously.
"I have an extremely active metabolism," Mandy replied primly. "That's what that nice man in the laboratory told me."
"Man? What man? When was this?"
"Let me see now, I'm not sure, it's been so long ... ummm ... Louis ... something. I forget. Anyway, I need a lot of food when I'm in this plane of existence. I'm thinking beef for dinner..."
"There's the first warehouse that burned," Zack interrupted. "Let's check it out."
"We're the third team to investigate this fire and we haven't found a trace of how it started," Zack said disgustedly.
Mandy smiled at the word 'team', but said nothing.
"Zack, look at this. What an odd burn mark."
She knelt next to a scorched area on the concrete floor, roughly circular in shape.
"I saw that before. What's odd about it?"
"Whatever burned here was at a much lower temperature than the surrounding area. I'm sure this is where the fire started..."
"Hello Zack," a voice boomed, "Are you looking this place over again?"
They turned to see a heavy set, balding man lumbering toward them through the debris.
"Keith Warner," Zack said in an undertone. "Chief Arson Investigator. Wonder what brought him here?"
"I don't like him," Mandy replied, a frown on her face.
"Cap'n Cartwright asked me to look things over, Keith. See if we missed anything."
"We've been over this place with a microscope, Zack. There's nothing to be found here."
Warner mopped his brow with a handkerchief, sweating profusely despite the mild temperature.
"I don't think I've met the young lady."
Mandy extended her hand politely, "Mandy Pearson, Zack's cousin, from New Zealand."
She grimaced as Warner's sweaty palm met hers, but he was looking at her breasts and didn't notice.
"A pleasure young lady," he wheezed. "Did you find anything new Zack?"
"Nope, not a thing," he replied, winking at Mandy. "We were just leaving."
"Showing your cousin how we do our jobs, huh?"
"That's right, see you later Keith."
They walked to the car and drove away, Warner watching them quizzically.
"How the devil did he know we were re-investigating the factory fires," Zack muttered. "I just spoke to the Cap'n not two hours ago."
"That burn mark on the floor reminded me of something, I wish I could remember what," Mandy said, brow furrowed in thought. "Are we going to look at the other fire sites?"
"Darn right. I wonder if Keith will show up there too."
"I don't like him," Mandy said. "His eyes are sneaky."
"Three fires, two of those odd burn marks. I'll bet there was one at the furniture factory too, except the ceiling fell in and must have covered it."
Mandy nodded. "I find it interesting that all the factories were manufacturing highly flammable products; plastics, furniture, canvas, very coincidental."
Zack pushed the remnants of their fast food meal aside and opened his laptop.
"Let's see if anyone else saw those marks."
Mandy went to the counter for another hamburger. When she returned, Zack had finished scrolling through the reports.
"No one else saw them, yet you spotted them right away, I wonder ... Hey, here's something interesting. Guess who reported and then supervised the investigations of all three fires?"
Mandy grinned, "Keith Warner."
"You are one smart woman. That's some coincidence I'd say."
She wrinkled her nose, "He smells funny."
Zack dried himself from the shower, toweling his hair vigorously. He and Mandy continued to investigate the mysterious fires, but were no closer to determining how they started. Voices and music emanated from the living room, punctuated by Mandy's infectious laugh; she delighted in watching television. Game shows were her favorites, as she liked watching the contestant's antics.
Zack grinned, climbed into bed and lay back against the headboard. He began to read the reports on the fire once again, but he soon dozed off. Mandy came running in the bedroom, skin a bright pink with excitement, and flung herself on the bed next to Zack.
"Wake up lover," she cried happily. "I've solved the mystery."
Zack jerked awake and looked at her sleepily.
"What? Huh? You solved what mystery?"
"The mystery of how the fires started, silly."
"We've been over these reports until I can quote from them by heart. I didn't see..."
"I saw something on the television. A quiz show called "Jeopardy." They were asking questions about candles. Then I knew how it was done."
"Yes, candles. It's like this. You make a pile of easily ignited materials, like paper, cardboard or wood shavings; place the stub of a candle in the center, scatter books of matches in the pile to make the fire hotter, light the candle, make sure the wick's staying lit, then away you go."
"It certainly sounds plausible..."
"That's the way it happened; remember the circular burn marks? They were always near highly flammable materials. Look at the reports. They were never mentioned. Who wrote those reports?"
"Keith Warner, of course, Mandy you're a genius!"
He hugged her to him and they shared a soul kiss.
"What shall I ask for as my reward?" she purred as he gathered her to him. "I think this will do nicely."
They looked at one another for a moment, love shining in their eyes, knowing at that instant they belonged with and to each other, never to part.
Their lips met in a burning kiss, and then their bodies were as one in the dance of love. The bed creaked and shook with the intensity of their lovemaking. Achieving mutual satisfaction, they lay locked in an embrace, exchanging soft kisses, basking in the afterglow.
The bed gave a final creak and collapsed under them, dropping the box spring and mattress to the floor. Zack and Mandy laughed uproariously, continuing to snuggle until they drifted into sleep.
"He'll be in that meeting for at least an hour," Zack said as he and Mandy walked down the line of parked cars at department headquarters. "Keep watch and I'll see what I can find in his ... ah, there it is." He pulled on the white sedan's door handle, "Damn, it's locked."
"You keep watch," Mandy said. She shimmered and disappeared.
How does she do that?
"Ew, what a mess," Mandy remarked, reappearing seated on the vehicles trunk. "He must live on fast food. Wrappers and cups all over the floor. I found something interesting though."
Zack sat next to her, "And that would be... ?"
"A burlap sack of wood shavings, flattened cardboard cartons and a plastic bag full of candles and matchbooks hidden in the spare tire well; he's the arsonist. I wonder why he's setting these fires when he's supposed to be investigating them."
"I remember how he acted in training, always trying to be the first with the answers, seeking the instructor's approval. He was a real eager beaver, working overtime, shining up to the brass, pushing until he became Chief Investigator. There have been cutbacks in the departmental budget this fiscal year; maybe he thinks his position will be eliminated unless there's some spectacular fires to investigate, keeping his profile high and looking indispensable."
"What do we do now? Tell Captain Cartwright what we've found?"
"I'm not sure we have sufficient evidence to accuse him of anything. He could explain away everything in his trunk, but I agree, we need to tell the Captain ... Wait a minute, how are we going to explain finding those things in a locked car?"
Mandy touched the trunk lock with her index finger, the tip turned bluish white and the lock snapped.
"He must have forgotten to lock it, how careless of him."
"It's not that I don't believe what you've told me," Captain Cartwright said with a sigh, "I'm just amazed that one of the most trusted men in the department is a serial arsonist and he's escaped detection all this time."
"When you control what is seen by others it's easy," Zack replied. "He's supervised the investigations of all major fires for the last 8 months. If something odd would be discovered, he'd just 'forget' to put it in the report."
"I have a good idea where he's planning to set a fire next," Mandy said.
"What's your idea, sweet ... I mean cousin."
"Continental Chemicals just finished a multi-million dollar expansion to it's laboratories and distribution center on Old Town Road. It's now the largest factory in the city. That has to be a tempting target."
The Captain began shuffling through a stack of papers on his desk.
"Here it is. I knew that sounded familiar. Chief Inspector Warner attended the opening ceremonies representing the department at the request of the Mayor and the City Council. They toured the entire factory, and he probably has copies of the construction plans from the Building Department. He knows every inch of that place."
"We can't do a thing until he makes a move, then it may be too late," Zack said disgustedly.
"How long has it been since the last fire Warner investigated?" Mandy asked.
"About three weeks," Cartwright said looking in a file folder. "Hmm ... closer to four actually."
"And the one before that?"
"Aha ... just over a month. Why didn't I see that earlier? There's a definite pattern."
"It's just about time for another one then."
"I'd be willing to keep watch," Zack said.
"We don't know when he'll make his move. You could be there night after night, it's not feasible."
"I know someone who can help us," Mandy said with a smile.
"Your Mother and Father said to tell you hello and they miss you. I think the Supreme One isn't as upset as she was. Do you like it here?"
Zack stared in astonishment at the creature on the hearth. When he and Mandy returned to his apartment, she asked if she could build a fire in the fireplace. Zack said yes, although it was mid-August and you could fry an egg on the sidewalk. When the fire was blazing merrily, Mandy called out "Blaze. Are you there? The portal's open."
Out from the flames waddled something seen in nightmares. It vaguely resembled a large iguana with scaly skin and a double serrated fin down it's spine, but it's huge yellow eyes, scimitar like claws and skin the color of heated metal belied that impression. It's mouth opened revealing needle-like fangs and a darting black tongue. It climbed in Mandy's lap and licked her face. It's voice was clear in Zack's mind as the two of them began talking.
"I'm having such fun here," Mandy said, "But I miss the Realm, and Mother and Father. Do you think the Supreme One will let me return?"
"She said she's thinking about it. It took her quite a while to placate some of the Imps. You know how they are." Blaze looked at Zack, "Is this the mortal you're in love with?"
"Yes. I want to take him home to meet my parents, but first I need a favor."
Keith Warner trembled with excitement. This would be the most spectacular fire yet. He had obtained three thermite grenades that would make the fire even hotter. Everyone would be thanking him for trying to save the new chemical plant. He would be a hero.
High above, yellow eyes watched his every move.
Mandy sat up suddenly from where they were lying in bed snuggling after making love.
"Zack! Blaze says Warner's preparing to set a fire at the plant. He'll try to keep him occupied until we can get there."
Dressing hurriedly, they were soon speeding across town.
Warner fastened the timer to the cluster of grenades and set it for one hour. He would be safely away when the fire started and yet close enough to get there first. A loud hiss made him turn around. Shining his flashlight into the darkened factory, he saw nothing. When he turned back to his work, there was an even louder hiss. He stepped away from the chemical storage bins, looked about and still could see nothing.
He jumped as a stack of cartons fell over with a crash, and then there was a hiss and the sound of something dragging across the floor. Warner played his flashlight beam around in the darkness. He saw nothing. A crash of glass and another hiss sent him lumbering toward the source of the sound, his plans for arson temporarily forgotten.
Flashing his badge at the startled guard, Zack drove through the opened gate heading for where Mandy said Blaze was watching their quarry.
Mandy giggled, relaying how her friend was leading Warner a merry chase through the darkened factory, drawing him further away from where he intended to start the fire.
Stopping at a particular door marked 'No Admittance, Authorized Personnel Only', Mandy wrenched it open and they were running through the darkened factory. Her eyes could function in the entire spectrum of visible light bands, so they easily avoided obstacles.
Reaching the area Blaze had described to them, Mandy saw the cluster of grenades and the timer. She picked it up and handed it to Zack, who in turn examined it with his penlight.
"This thing might be set to go off any time. I'll try and figure how to disarm it. See if you can bring Warner back here so he can."
Mandy smiled and was gone.
He was still puzzling over it when a blow from behind knocked him unconscious.
"Blaze. Where's Warner? I thought you..."
"I lost him. I was ready to make some more noise, when I heard him running away. I didn't see where he went."
"He's gone back for the bomb to make sure it's still going to go off. Zack's there alone. Come on."
She scooped Blaze up and sprinted back to her lover.
Warner hefted his flashlight, ready to strike again if Zack moved. He didn't. Panting from his exertions, he dragged Zack inside the storage room, checked the timer on the thermite bomb and turned to leave.
Zack's cousin stood in the doorway holding a hideous creature in her arms. It's mouth opened revealing needle sharp fangs and it hissed loudly. Her eyes glowed and her skin was deep red. Warner shook with fright.
"What have you done to my Zack?"
Warner's mouth opened, but he couldn't speak. He backed away, nearly stumbling over Zack's body. She moved closer, and then set the creature down.
"Watch him Blaze."
The creature waddled forward, fangs bared, hissing and lashing it's tail.
Mandy knelt, lifted Zack in her arms, turned and walked out.
Warner tried to follow, but the creature hissed menacingly.
"You have to let me out of here. The bomb is going off any minute," Warner screamed.
"Then you better disarm it," Mandy said over her shoulder and continued to walk away.
He picked it up in sweaty hands, frantically pulling at the wires.
Mandy shielded Zack with her body as the grenades exploded, lay him down carefully behind some crates, returned to the flames and absorbed them; sinking to her knees from the effect.
Blaze nuzzled her and licked her face. In a moment, she stood up, her legs wobbly.
"Are you alright, Mandy? You've never absorbed that much energy before."
"I'll be okay in a minute. I need to see if Zack's badly injured."
Zack appeared from behind the crates, gingerly touching the swelling lump on his head.
"Mandy, what happened? Where's Warner? Was the bomb disarmed?"
Mandy didn't answer. They embraced, kissing and hugging.
"Here's what's left of him," Blaze answered, whisking a smoldering pile of ashes and bone fragments with his tail.
"Courageous Firefighter Gives Life to Save Factory," Zack read the headline aloud, "What a crock of crap."
"That press release came directly from the Mayor's office," Captain Cartwright said disgustedly. "They don't want to admit Warner made fools of them, so he's a hero instead of a demented arsonist."
"Politicians!" Zack snorted.
"Well, they did offer you the Chief Inspectors job as a consolation prize," Cartwright replied with a grin. "Are you going to accept it?"
"Yes I am. Mandy will be staying with me a while longer ... and she likes to help me with cases...
Zack's cell phone chirped.
"Scuse me, Cap'n, it's Mandy. Hi cuz. What's goin' on? Really, no kidding? Sure, I can be there. Bye.
I gotta go, Cap'n. Something's come up."
When Zack entered the apartment, Mandy and Blaze stood on the hearth, talking excitedly. She was wearing her tunic and a fire was crackling in the fireplace.
"Zack!" she cried happily, running to him and giving him a hug that made him gasp.
"I'm sorry, my love. I'm just so excited. The Supreme One said I may return home. Isn't that wonderful?"
Zack's face fell. "That's great, sweetie. Are you leaving right this minute?"
"Oh, yes. I can't wait to see my parents and my friends."
Mandy saw the look on his face.
"You're coming too, silly. Everyone is looking forward to meeting you."
At that instant, a wall of flame appeared where the fireplace had been. Oddly, Zack felt no heat as he looked into it and saw nothing but a raging inferno.
"Mandy, I can't go in there. I'll..."
"Nonsense. Take my hand. You won't be harmed."
Blaze waddled through first, wriggling happily.
Zack's senses screamed danger as they stepped through the portal. It closed behind them and the fire went out.
They stood in a bizarre landscape reminiscent of a Dore' or a Bosch painting. The ground was alive with flames, the sky a dull copper; tumbled boulders, grotesquely shaped plants and shadowy creatures were occasionally visible between billowing clouds of smoke.
"Isn't it beautiful?" Mandy said excitedly. "Mother and Father should be here soon. I just know they're going to like you."
"I'm sure they will," said a gravelly voice behind them.
Zack turned in surprise, what he saw was Blaze, grown as large as a tiger with eyes the size of pie plates.
"You can speak?" Zack said.
"Of course, when I am in your plane of existence it is necessary to reduce my size and communicate mind to mind. It attracts less attention that way. The last time I materialized there in my present state, men in armor were trying to spear me with lances. I frightened them away by breathing fire."
"Dragons," Zack muttered under his breath.
"Mother and Father are here," Mandy called from somewhere in the billows of smoke. "They want to meet you."
"Follow me," Blaze said, waddling into the smoke. "You better hold on to my tail."
Zack emerged and stared in amazement at the sight before him. Mandy was standing between two fantastic beings, smiling and motioning him to come closer.
One was clearly female, skin a dazzling white, yellow hair artfully piled and sculpted on her head, full breasted, wide hips, thick waist and long legs. She was naked except for sandals on her feet. Hovering just above the ground, her emerald eyes gazed benignly at her daughter then at Zack.
The other was unlike anything Zack had ever seen.
The beings upper half was human in appearance, a head on a thick neck, heavily muscled arms and torso that blended seamlessly into a huge lizard-like body with squat legs and scimitar claws. Long black hair dangled in ringlets from its head matching its full beard and thick eyebrows. Its yellow eyes had vertical pupils and brilliant white teeth flashed in a welcoming smile. Mandy ran up, hugged and kissed him and said "Mother, Father, this is Zack. We're lovers and we want to marry."
"You have chosen well, my daughter," the woman said as she floated up to Zack, looking him up and down. "A handsome face, such muscles and so well endowed. If I was a few hundred years younger I might go for him myself."
Zack suddenly realized his clothing had disappeared. Mandy was naked too and her hugging him was not helping his composure, but her parents seemed not to notice.
A hearty laugh burst from the man-lizard, making Zack jump.
"You haven't changed a bit since the day we met, Kalli, always keeping an eye out for the virile young men. That one is Mandy's."
"I was merely familiarizing myself with our son-in-law to be, Lagar. You know you are my mate for eternity. So tell us, what do you do where you come from?"
"Well, I fight..."
"Zack is a mighty warrior," Mandy interjected. "He's strong, fearless, brave and a wonderful lover."
"How exciting," Kalli replied. "Whom do you fight, the Phoenicians, the Spartans, the Goth's... ?"
"A warrior son-in-law," Lagar boomed, "How appropriate. There are some beings about that could use a good thrashing."
"Zack saved me from an evil ogre who was on a rampage," Mandy continued, warming to her subject. "He tracked him to his lair, freed me and destroyed the evil creature."
"Mandy, that's not what happened..." Zack began.
"So modest too," Kalli said admiringly, "Truly the sign of a noble warrior."
Before Zack could explain further, Mandy began pulling him away.
"I want him to meet my friends. We'll see you later. Bye."
They disappeared into the smoke, her parents staring bemusedly after them.
"Mandy, why did you tell your parents I was a warrior?"
"I couldn't very well tell them you investigate and try to prevent fires, at least not yet. Once they get to know you we'll tell them the truth."
"Where are we going?"
"To meet my friends, like I said."
They stepped through a roiling cloud of smoke into a verdant landscape of tall grass, huge trees and flowers of every size and description. Zack was amazed.
"Mandy, what place is this?"
"This is Earth, the source of all life. It's one of the four lands that make up the Supreme One's Realm. I am one of the few Elementals that can travel from one land to another, and I have since I was a child. Let's sit under that tree for a bit."
Zack had never seen such huge trees in his life; they made Sequoias look like flagpoles. The grass under their feet was a living carpet; brilliant green and soft to walk on. They stretched out on the grass, snuggling and kissing.
"I love you, my Zack," Mandy purred, nuzzling his neck.
"I love you too, Mandy," he replied, their desire for each other awakening.
"I thought I recognized that voice. Hello Mandy."
Zack watched in astonishment as a huge, vaguely human-shaped section of the turf arose and stood before them, clods of dirt falling from it.
"Solum! How have you been?" Mandy cried happily, running to the creature and hugging it, almost disappearing in the grass that covered it's body.
"Quite well thank you. Is this the mortal you're going to marry?"
Mandy giggled, "News travels fast in the realms. Yes, this is Zack, my beloved. Zack meet Solum. He's an old friend."
Zack stepped forward and extended his hand, "Good to meet you, Solum."
"Likewise, I'm sure," it replied, enveloping Zack's hand in a huge earthen paw.
"Solum and I used to play together when I was little," Mandy said as he lifted her to sit on one massive shoulder.
"I had never seen a mortal before, much less a small one. She wandered here from the Fire Realm and was totally unafraid when I appeared before her."
"All I knew was fire and when I saw Earth Realm I was fascinated. Solum was kind and showed me about. I invited him to come home with me, but he explained he would harden in the flames so we always met here."
Zack's mind whirled. I must be dreaming this. I love a woman who's a Fire Elemental who's friends with an Earth Elemental. What's next?
"Solum works with Father on occasion," Mandy continued. "He constructs the volcanoes and Father places the fire inside."
"I also build islands, start avalanches and create caverns. I form riverbeds, and then Queo fills them."
"Queo is a Water Elemental," Mandy explained. "We'll meet later."
"I designed a new mountain range," Solum said proudly. "Would you like to see it?"
"Yes, we'd like that wouldn't we Zack?"
"Uh ... sure ... where is it."
"Not far," Solum replied. "Hop on my back and we'll be there in no time."