Burning Season

A Mystery Thriller Novel


Bruce Balfour, national bestselling author of The Forge of Mars and The Digital Dead, transports readers into life and death on the cutting edge of technology, where no one is safe.


Burning Season

At a small California college, the chancellor is impaled on a stone gargoyle high above the campus.

In the cold waters beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, a woman’s body is pulled from the water, but she wasn’t a suicide—her body was burned first.

In a quiet grove of coastal redwoods, a burning woman lights up the night.

Former Special Agent Ben Wright has agreed to track his last serial killer as a low-profile consultant for the FBI. Despite his fear of fire, Ben’s task is to put out the elusive Firebug, who uses high-tech methods to lure his victims to their fiery deaths. But this time, Ben needs help.

Computer scientist Maria Fiore studied many serial killers on Death Row, then created a new tool for this manhunt—a computer simulation of the Firebug’s mind.

Can a killer be used to catch a killer, or will the hunters become the hunted?

First Chapter

     When Evan Worthington regained consciousness, he screamed until his throat was raw. Wrapped in a cocoon of pain unlike anything he’d ever known, a pain that roared through his entire body with waves of intense agony, he couldn’t silence his pitiful shrieks unless he fainted into the blackness again. But he felt himself growing weaker by the minute, his wails lost on the gentle breeze, his throat bubbling with the rising liquid that would drown him very soon. He wanted to stay alert for as long as possible, afraid to let the darkness take him for fear that he would never see the light again. While there was light, there was hope. He held on, sipping at the air that seemed to burst into flame in his lungs, fighting to keep his eyes open, until the pain was so pure and all‑consuming that it pushed him beyond the barrier of earthly cares, beyond the horrors of his broken body, and into a numbed state of mental clarity.

It was a warm summer day. Golden sunlight washed down from the turquoise sky, brightening the yellows, reds, blues, and purples of the pansies and magnolias planted in neat patterns thirty feet below. The breeze carried the scents of pine trees and freshly mown grass. Songbirds chirped, and two butterflies danced a courtship ritual above the flowers, avoiding the red tears that steadily fell from the dark metal eyes of the gargoyle perched on the roof. The gargoyle’s uncaring mate sat just six feet away on the parapet, silently dreaming in bronze, its massive bat wings folded, an evil three‑foot horn protruding from its forehead, its claws gripping the stone perch.

     Evan’s skin felt cold and damp. Dark stains had spread all the way down both legs of his slacks, ruining the line of his dark blue suit. He was horrified to think that he’d be found in this undignified position, seated on the head of a gargoyle, his legs dangling past its head, slumped forward but held securely in place by the long horn he was sitting on. Over time, with gravity and his own weight working against him, the point of the bronze horn had worked its way inexorably higher every few minutes, gradually plunging through abdominal organs, his liver, his diaphragm, and now resting somewhere between his spine and his right lung. Any movement caused a new supernova of agony to burst inside his torso, sending shockwaves through his arms and legs until he fainted. After hours of darkness, an eternity in which Evan was forced to confront his impending demise whenever he awoke, watching his body’s vital fluids drain out of him like antifreeze from a punctured radiator, he prayed that his body would be discovered and removed before any of the students saw him. After years of trying to set an example of proper conduct for the young women at Crown College, he had no wish to be remembered this way, penetrated by a gargoyle on the roof of the administration building. His humiliation would live forever in the memories of his students.

     Evan’s heart fluttered as if it wanted to fly out of his chest, pulsing a river of fire through his nervous system that caused him to twitch, releasing an echo of pain that sizzled up his spine.

     It simply wasn’t fair. In six more years, he would have retired from his post as chancellor with a healthy nest egg for his retirement, after which he would travel with his wife and enjoy the fruits of his labors until he died in bed at a ripe old age. That future looked less likely with each passing moment. Emma would notice when he didn’t show up for breakfast after his overnight trip, then she would call the police and mourn his demise after the grisly discovery, but he hoped she wouldn’t see his defiled corpse on television. And there were the students to think about. He and Emma had never been blessed with children, but they were good friends with many of the students, and he was disgusted to think that their young lives might be altered by spotting his lifeless form hanging around on the roof. After fifty‑five years of leading a temperate and virtuous life—except for a brief dalliance with Bernice Underwood, who had led him astray during his second year as a math professor at the college—he could not understand why God had chosen to humiliate him in this fashion. His only recent mistake had been to stop in at his office around midnight on his way home, where he had stumbled into the nightmare.

     Isabel Cabral, a thirty‑year‑old assistant professor of evolutionary biology, lay in the shadows just outside the door to the administration building, wearing a long scarlet evening dress. She’d been invited over to have dinner with Evan and Emma many times, and her free‑spirited laugh had always brought a ray of sunshine into their home. But she wasn’t laughing when Evan saw her on the cold wood floor; she was unconscious. A giant also loomed in the shadows, and he threw her body over his shoulders like a sack of potatoes, holding onto her legs, humming in a contented trance until he spotted Evan coming through the door.

     Evan had recognized the giant, and the giant wasn’t happy about it.

     Then the fire extinguisher hit Evan in the side of the head.

     When he woke up, he was on the roof, his legs dangling, held high in the air by strong hands that suddenly pulled him down on the head of the gargoyle, and a sudden volcano of pain sent the flames of Hell through his mortal form, hurling him into the darkness of the pit, foreshadowing torments yet to come.

     He could no longer feel the lower half of his body. A cold and welcome numbness crept up his torso, shutting down organs that were no longer needed, releasing him from the bonds of gravity, freeing him to dance on the breeze with the butterflies and the singing birds.

     He blinked slowly, trying to keep his eyes open, waiting to tell the police about Isabel Cabral and the giant, waiting to say goodbye to his wife, but he was tired, so tired, and his pain drifted away on the wind, and with a little rest maybe he could finally fly off the gargoyle’s head, away from the torturing bronze spike, above the sad troubles of the world, into the freedom and beauty of a turquoise summer sky.


Burning Season
January 2012