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Fire and Water and the Car That Went Zoom

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Everybody knew somebody whose house had burned down. Like going to jail or getting cancer, everyone had a story about that one person, that one family. By the time she was ten, Liz Sherman had burned down four houses and killed two people. One of them was her grandmother.

The old woman had loved her, Liz knew, stroking her hair every night as she tucked in the covers and prayed over the small child that the Devil would stop his pranks and leave her alone once and for all. Her grandmother knew about the bad dreams, about the sudden rages, and she probably guessed that the accident which took her daughter's life wasn't completely natural. But Liz had been a tot, and couldn't remember, and her grandmother had never once said the words out loud.

Liz liked to think the last house fire sent up suffocating fumes. It was the kindest death, and she could not bear the thought of looking through the records when she was old enough to ask.

"You're moody tonight," Abe said, drawing her from her thoughts. He floated upside-down in his tank, hands pressed together in imitation of the way her grandmother had taught Liz to pray.

She smiled tightly, seeing her own pale, drawn face reflected in the side of his tank. There was no use lying to a telepath. "It's my grandmother's birthday. I've been thinking about her."

He nodded, head moving peculiarly in the water. "You must have loved her very much."

"She took care of me after my mom died. She tucked me in at night, and sent me to school in the morning. Sometimes she sang to me. I really miss her." Liz hadn't cried in years and wasn't about to start now, even as she felt the old prickle.

"It's your move," Abe said gently, pointing at the board. She was teaching him how to play Monopoly, though she had to roll for him as well as move. He was the iron. She was the little dog. Red rarely played with them, because he just didn't have the patience, but when he wandered through their games, he always wanted to be the car, so she set it aside in case he joined in.

Liz rolled double threes and moved to a railroad. "I'll buy it." She put in her money and sorted through for the card. This was their second set, finally replacing the set with the scorched cards (hers), the soggy cards (Abe's, that time he tried playing with the suit on), and of course the bent ones (no one fidgeted like Red when he was waiting for Abe to read his newest Chance card).

She rolled for Abe next, and let him read the roll. "Seven. My lucky number." He said that every time. It was going to get annoying soon, but for whatever reason, she always grinned, and maybe that's why he kept up the joke. Liz scooted the iron to the Community Chest, and picked up a card, holding it against the tank. "I've taken second place in a beauty pageant," Abe declared with detached amusement. He fanned his face with one fin-like hand and attempted to bat his eyes. "I'd like to thank the judges, and Elvis."

A giggle burst out of her unexpectedly, and with it a memory bubbled up: playing this game with her grandmother, over a child's tea party set. She'd played games with Liz for hours, not minding when the decks of cards had to be replaced, nor when the plastic chess pieces deformed in her hands. "That's just my hot-blooded girl," she'd said with a sigh and a kiss, and helped Liz clean up. ("Always clean up your own mistakes," she'd say, "but it's good to have a friend when you do.")

A loud noise preceded Red's entrance, not so much storming in as bringing the enormity of his presence with him. "Hey, what's everybody doing?"

The reek of tobacco smoke surrounded him as he approached their game, as well as his regular combo of bluster and awkward shyness. He didn't want to ask to join in, because he was afraid they'd say no, but he didn't want to look afraid. Dork. "I just bought the Short Line."

"And I'm a beauty queen."

"Care to join us?"

Now he would pretend not to want this very thing. "I guess. Got nothing better to do. But I want to be the car." He made a screeching brake noise and zoom effects as he plucked up the little metal toy from where she'd put it, and took delicate care not to slam it on the board again.

The game went on another twenty minutes before Red got bored and announced he was going to watch some TV. Abe continued to play, going to jail once (there's always someone), but Liz was getting antsy, so they ended the game when she landed on Free Parking.

"I'm not sure I've quite got the hang of it," said Abe as she put the pieces away.

"You had twice as much money as I did and you owned Boardwalk. I think you won."

"And that's the point? That's how you win? I thought it had to do with hotels."

She shrugged. "It's Monopoly. I've never known anyone to actually finish a game and find out."

He gave her a little wave as she wished him good night. She took a shower, because there was always hot water here no matter how much she used, not like the foster homes where she'd gone after, not like the one hospital where Professor Bruttenholm found her and offered her a new home with the BPRD. When she slept, she dreamed of tea parties. Her grandmother sat nibbling fake cakes with Abe, and Red kept trying to hold his tiny teacup in his big hand, and the sun was warm on their faces.

Two weeks later, they tracked down a demon in a library, but not until after a) the demon eviscerated a librarian, and b) Liz accidentally set Dewey decimal numbers 120 through 140 ablaze. A crummy day all around, and Red was in one of his moods. Liz thought about leaving, getting away from this place where she let down her friends and damaged more than she helped. Unable to rest in her own quarters, she paced the halls, finding herself outside Abe's tank.

"Ah," he said, swimming over to her. "I've been meaning to speak with you."

"Yeah?" She expected a scolding, and advice on how not to mess things up.

Instead, Abe said, "Go over to my podium, would you?"

Curious, she acquiesced, letting her feet drag her to where his latest book tended to rest. In its place, she found a manila folder. "What's this?"

"Something you should read."

She opened the file, and shuddered, startled, as she recognized what she was reading. The police report for the fire that killed her grandmother was not her idea of a good read. "This is a sick joke, Abe."

"It's not a joke. I asked Lance," this was Red's latest minder, "to look it up for me." When Liz glared, he coaxed, "Read it. I swear it's not meant to hurt you."

Angrily, grudgingly, Liz scanned through the report, feeling the tears prickling at her again. Photos of the ruined row house brought back waves of memories. And then she saw what he'd wanted her to see.

Cause of fire: cigarette improperly doused The fire had started in the house next door, not at their address.

"Oh my God."

"You didn't start that fire, Liz. I know you think you did. But it wasn't your fault." Abe's voice floated gently through the speaker. He'd tracked this down for her, this truth she could never bear discovering on her own.

She cleared her throat. "Thanks. Thank you." She closed the report, and folded it against her chest. "I'd like to take this and read it alone, if you don't mind."

"Go on." He blinked his unusual eyes at her, and she placed her hand against his tank, hoping he felt her gratitude.

An hour later, she was still rereading, recapturing that night in her memories, and getting a little skittish in her head, when there was a knock on her door. "Liz? You in?"

"Yeah, Red. Come on in." She rolled to sit up on her bed. It was a nice bed, if she didn't mind all the non-flammable covers, or the plastic ticking in the mattress. Red took a weird little breath when he saw her there. He had the Monopoly box under his arm.

"Abe said you might wanna play for a while, but that he's too into his book right now." He held up the box expectantly. "I want the car."

"You can have the car."

With great delicacy, Red set up the board and helped her sort the cards and the money. He started chatting about this new movie he'd seen last night on HBO. He'd get bored with the game soon, but that was okay. Abe had figured out the point of Monopoly after all: it wasn't about getting the most hotels or landing on Boardwalk, it was about spending time with your friends.

Liz rolled first. She got doubles.