Max slammed the hammer down on the final nail in the last crate. Maybe he used more force than was strictly necessary but that was only because this represented the most recent in a long line of obnoxious errands his father had sent him on. His father, the Yale professor of archeology, who was too busy to fly all over the world collecting random shit but not too busy, as it turned out, to order his only son to do it.
As Max pushed the crate into its place with all the others, he reviewed the last two years in his head. He’d been to every god-forsaken corner of the globe collecting votive statues from Iran, dirt from Slobodan Milosevic’s grave, and feathers from a dying Bird of Paradise – not a sick Bird of Paradise, a dying one. He’d met the shadiest characters and done a lot of things he wasn’t proud of all to show his father that he was no longer the drunken miscreant he had been.
And Max was under no false notion about the results of this little venture in terms of father-son relations. The Professor, upon learning that his son had completed all the hundreds of impossible tasks set before him, would simply nod his head and inquire why it had taken said son two years.
And, he would continue, it was not as if Max had anything else pressing to do with his time – like attend a university – because he had already failed to complete that.
No, Max mused to himself as his footsteps rattled off the metal walls of the warehouse that represented every effort he had made in the last 24 months, he had very little to look forward to in the way of appreciation for his dedication to this project. But he had to admit, if nothing else, it had been an adventure. Like an Indian Jones level adventure. How many people could say they’d stolen a Ghanaian griot’s lateral incisor? Or bartered their Nikes in Vladivostok for a hank of hair rumored to belong to the witch Baba Yaga? And he’d have that scar from the bar fight over that Etruscan burial mask until the day he died.
As he was shutting the door to the place, feeling an overwhelming sense of accomplishment, there was a sudden and over-powering smell. It hit him like a sack of bricks to the nose and he scrunched his face up to keep his eyes from tearing up more than they already had.
The sickly-sweet smell was unmistakable; Max could feel the hairs in his nose curling. He moved to follow the smell back through the stacks when he noticed, quite suddenly, that there was someone standing in his way.
“I wouldn’t go back there,” she said matter-of-factly, rubbing her hands together as though ridding them of invisible dust. “The place is drenched in petrol,” she informed him.
“What?” Max blurted, bewildered and alarmed. “But-” he wasn’t sure where to start with the improbability of this new development. “But how?” he finally managed, “how did everything get drenched in… petrol?” his lips stumbled over the unfamiliar word.
“Oh, you know, once you get going it is rather hard to stop,” she responded holding up the large, red jug in her hand. Max simply stared, too thrown to feel anything like surprise, alarm, or anger.
“Okay,” he said, trying to compute, “but why?” She smiled brilliantly at him like he was a puppy that had just performed a particularly clever and entertaining trick.
“To burn it to the ground, obviously,” she said flipping her platinum hair over her shoulder.
“I see,” Max said, though he didn’t.
“My name is Margot,” she said, sticking out her hand for him to shake. He accepted it woodenly. “And we should get out of here unless we want to become a flambé.” She said the last with a little twist of her hand like she was a flamenco dancer. Margot grabbed his elbow and steered him outside, carefully keeping them away from the trail of gasoline she poured behind them as they walked. Max was absurdly reminded of Hansel and Gretel and how, lost in the woods, abandoned by their parents, they had decided to take their fate into their own hands.
It was just as she was taking out the matches that Max finally cottoned on.
“Wait!” he shouted though Margot was standing right next to him, “you can’t do that!” he protested indignantly.
“Why not?” she asked.
The obviousness of the question stumped Max. Why not? Why not? There were a million reasons ‘why not’! He’d spent two years in the ass end of the world conning, bartering, and stealing useless crap from everyone you could possibly imagine except, of course, someone you would trust with your luggage. He had put his heart and soul into building this collection for some purpose that the Professor had yet to reveal and she wanted to know why she couldn’t burn it to the ground?
And what was all the secrecy about? Couldn’t he be trusted to know what the ultimate outcome of all his hard work would be? Was it for a museum exhibit? Though what exhibit would have such widely varied things was beyond him. Was there some other, more supernatural reason? Was the Professor experimenting with sympathetic magic again, though all he had managed to conjure in the past was a head cold from standing in the rain all night?
The more he thought about it, the angrier he got - he’d been stock-piling all this crap in hopes of receiving a scrap of recognition for the fact that he was no longer the drunken womanizer who’d dropped out of Ivy League three years ago, from a father who had never said two encouraging words to him. The warehouse was a giant symbol of his relationship with his father – all work, uphill, to no obvious or lasting result – and he was suddenly seized with the undeniable urge to see it all a smoldering pile of ashes.
Max blinked slowly at Margot as the realization dawned that he wanted the whole thing obliterated from the face of the Earth.
“Let me do it,” he said as he gingerly took the matches from her. The match ignited the first time and splashed the scene in a warm light as he dropped it on the gasoline-soaked pavement. As he watched the little trail of accelerant lead the flames back into the warehouse, a serenity he’d never felt before washed over him. The hypnotic nature of the fire that bloomed inside the building as they watched seemed to ease a place in his soul that had been tensed up for years. Since he’d grown old enough – at the age of 12 – to be a disappointment to his father. He was finally and irrevocably at peace. There was only one thing that was still bothering him…
“Why did you want to burn it down?” he asked turning to Margot.
“Because contained in that warehouse was enough black magic to set the world on fire,” she replied, “and your father was going to sell it to the highest bidder.” She said it all straight faced, as though there were things like black magic and people who would pay good money for it. Max waited a couple of beats to try to discern if she was kidding, but after she went so long without even the hint of a smile he had to conclude that she was, in fact, perfectly serious.
“Sounds like something he would do,” he finally said neutrally. “How do you know all this?” he asked, still strangely calm. Max had never been one too quick on the uptake.
“My father was going to help him,” she said, “he’s a professor at Cambridge and a right tosser.”
Max didn’t really know what that meant but he was beginning to get the idea that he and Margot had a lot more in common than just domestic terrorism. Maybe her father had caught her banging someone on his desk, too.
And now that image was burned in his mind.
“Want to get dinner?” she asked after they watched the flames for a couple more minutes. “Arson really works up an appetite.” Max shook his head in order to focus.
“Sure,” he said, offering her his arm, “I’m kinda in the mood for some barbeque.”