By Geonn Cannon
Mill About Smartly
Lancaster's smile seemed to waver slightly, but it came back in full force a heartbeat later. "Of course," he said, regaining his composure. He straightened his tie and ushered them into the office. "Please, come in." He looked past them at the secretary. "Thank you, Sandra, that will be all... u-unless our guests would like something to drink. Coffee? Tea or lemonade...?"
"No, we're fine."
"Okay, thank you, Sandra."
The elderly secretary nodded and stepped out of the room. Lancaster closed the door behind her and indicated the seats in front of his desk. "Alexandra, Marshal Von Elm... or should I call you Mr. Von Elm, which..."
"Marshal is fine," Von Elm muttered, sinking into the leather seat the developer had indicated.
Alex remained standing, indicating her soiled bunker pants as an excuse. She was wearing the same thing she'd worn to the hospital, per Leary's instructions, and had felt incredibly conspicuous waiting for an elevator in the pristine lobby of Lancaster Designs, Inc. "I would prefer Ms. Crawford, while we're on the subject of names."
Lancaster looked at her for a moment, and then held his hands out. "Very well, suppose I can't argue with that." He walked around his desk and carefully lowered himself into his own seat. "Now, *Ms*. Crawford, Marshal Von Elm, to what do I owe this unexpected visit?"
Von Elm spoke. "I was assigned to look over a few recent fires. During the course of our investigation, we discovered some disturbing evidence that indicates fires are the product of an arsonist. We think the same firebug is responsible for all of the fires."
"Oh, dear," Lancaster said, his face paling. "Someone like that, running around in a town like this? Do you have any idea who it might be?"
"No," Von Elm admitted. "At the moment, we're not even sure who the true target is. Every fire seems to be aimed at eliminating the firefighters that respond, but we also have to deal with the fact that all the buildings are projects of your corporation."
"Is that true?" he asked, leaning forward. "I... thought I was just being paranoid. Oh, my goodness, if somehow my buildings a-are more susceptible to arson, I must offer my most sincere apologies..."
Alex shook her head. "No, it's not your buildings. I inspected a lot of them myself and they seem sound. We also have to consider that it's just a coincidence. Your company does very well and the fact that the arsonist keeps picking your buildings might just be luck of the draw."
"Hmm." He smiled weakly and sat back in his chair. "The one time I win the luck of the draw..."
Von Elm smirked. "Look, Mr. Lancaster, basically we just wanted to know if you had any enemies... rivals that might want to tarnish your company's reputation or cause you financial troubles."
"Financial troubles aren't an issue... all these buildings are insured." He glanced at Alex and said, "Which I hope you won't take as a motive. It's a smart business practice to..."
"We understand, Mr. Lancaster," Alex said. "But try to think... Is there *anyone* you know that would want to hurt you in this way?"
He ran a finger along his top lip and stared at the window for a moment. "I'm afraid I can't think of anyone specific off the top of my head," he sighed and shrugged apologetically. "My enemies, what few there are, tend to aim for my pocketbook. And we're not talking subtle snipers here. I've been had court dates five out of the past eight weeks. If anyone was going to try and hurt me, they'd do it there. In the courtroom, with the legal system behind them."
"I had no idea you were in such dire legal straits, Mr. Lancaster."
"It's worse than it sounds, really," he said. "Land rights, property lines in dispute, people suing because my new development blocks their view of the mountains or some such nonsense. It's usually settled out of court."
"Anyone take umbrage at their settlement? Maybe think they weren't getting what they deserved, decided to take a pound of flesh along with their money?"
Lancaster grinned. "As Ms. Crawford could probably attest, Marshal, I'm a very charming man. Usually, when the case is over, the plaintiffs thank me and apologize for taking my time."
Alex rolled her eyes at the comment and noticed Lancaster was pushing his chair back and forth with one foot. He seemed relaxed, almost at ease with the world around him. She frowned; he'd been antsy when they had arrived, but now that he was hearing their questions it was almost as if he had not a care in the world. "May I ask you a question, Mr. Lancaster?"
"Of course, Ms. Crawford."
"How do you feel about firefighters?"
He blinked and tilted his head. "Well, I don't know. How do you mean?"
"Just... in general. If you see a fire engine on the street, what's your first thought?"
Lancaster glanced at Von Elm and shrugged. "I... don't know. I hope no one is hurt. I hope it's not my building they're heading for..." He smiled and held his hands out. "I must confess, I don't spend a lot of my time thinking about them. It's a shame, too, considering the invaluable duty they serve."
*'Hard to believe,'* she thought, *'considering the number of times you've called the firehouse, all the times you've dropped off snacks, all the pestering you've done...'* She bit back the cutting remarks lined up on her tongue and said, "Do you know what a flashover is, Mr. Lancaster?"
"Yes," he sighed, scratching his temple. "That's a kind of food, isn't it? No, wait, I'm thinking of apple turnovers." He looked at Von Elm, as if expecting a laugh or a rim shot, and then shook his head. "I'm afraid the answer is no, Ms. Crawford, I don't know what a flashover is."
"It's not important," Alex said.
"Any other questions?" Von Elm asked. She shook her head and the Marshal stood, smoothing his shirt over his belly. "All right, then. Thank you for your time, Mr. Lancaster. We just wanted to let you know that this guy seemed to be focusing on your buildings and see if you might be able to point us in the right direction."
"I'm sorry I couldn't be of more help."
He shook hands with the Marshal, then turned and extended his hand to Alex. She looked at him for a moment and reached out to grasp his hand. "It was nice to see you again, Alex."
She pinched off a smile and nodded her head once. "Back at ya, Marty."
He suddenly tightened his grip on her hand, his eyes blazing for a moment before returning to normal. Calmly, he said, "Martin... if you would please."
He relaxed his grip and Alex squeezed. Martin's foot stuttered forward and he muttered a quick, "Ah," before he could stop himself. Alex smiled and released his hand. He cupped the hand, massaging the knuckles.
Alex shrugged. "Sorry. Don't know my own strength."
He escorted them to the door of his office and thanked them for letting him know of the potential problem with his buildings. When they were alone in the hall, Von Elm stepped close to Alex and said, "What the hell was all that in there? Flashover, the whole hand deal... Is Lancaster a suspect?"
"Lancaster is a prick," she said, shaking her head. "Leary shouldn't have sent me... I hate this guy."
"Really," Von Elm said sarcastically, leading the way down the hall. "If only there was some way to decipher your complex system of communication."
She lifted her right hand, showing him her middle finger.
"Now what is *that* supposed to mean?"
Martin walked back to his desk, fuming. How much did they know? If they were going to arrest him or even interrogate him, there's no way they would have just left like that. But Alex - pardon... *Ms.* Crawford - had been glaring at him throughout the interview, almost as if she knew he was responsible. The marshal seemed as blindsided by her questions as Lancaster himself, so it obviously wasn't a good-cop, bad-cop performance. Alex had to have seen something that made her suspect him. Maybe he'd overplayed his crush on her. It didn't matter now anyway.
He sat behind his desk and stared at the closed file of potential targets. Crawford. It all came back to her. She had been a nice distraction - hypnotic eyes, strong arms - but she was becoming a nuisance. And from what he'd seen of her dates with the doctor, he didn't have a chance with her anyway. Shame... such beauty wasted on another women.
He leaned back in his chair, wishing there was a way to ensure that she would be the sacrifice in the next fire. There was no way to do that unless he was privy to Leary's command decisions. There was by-the-book and there was the experience factor. He wasn't sure he could trust the Chief to do the anticipated thing.
Closing his eyes, he tried to think of a way to remove Leary from the equation. The only way he could think of accomplishing his goals would be if there was a situation Alex absolutely, positively had to be in. His eyes opened as a plan started to form in his mind. There was one way to assure where Alexandra Crawford would be during a fire. It would mean deviating from his original plan, of course, but it would be worth it to get that suspicious bitch out of his way. Then he could continue without her interfering.
The next morning, Alex left the bunks and headed for the kitchen. She froze when she spotted the cluster of bodies within the bunker area, talking in hushed voices. "Whoa. Someone having a panty raid and forget to call me?"
Wizell, instantly identifiable due to the bandages on his neck and his oddly shaped head, turned and flashed his trademark grin. "Hey, Crawford. Come on down, give us a hand."
Chief Leary and Captain Franklin were standing next to him, a sign that whatever they were up to was at least approved by the bosses. William Sawyer, Murray's rival on the engine, smiled as he handed her a roll of crepe paper. "Time to get in touch with your artistic side, Crawfish."
It was a tradition in the firehouse to decorate someone's locker after a big event like a wedding, divorce, birthday and the like. She looked at the locker and saw that Murray was the intended victim this time. Banners with 'Fireproof!' branded on them covered the front of the locker door. "What's all this about?" she smiled as she took a roll of crinkled paper.
"Murray has been cleared for duty," Wizell explained. "One day after falling through a freaking roof, he and Bugs are both coming back."
"Wow," Alex said, raising her eyebrows. "I thought Bugs hurt her leg or her hip or something?"
Leary said, "She was banged up, but she called in this morning and the doc seems to think it was just a bruise. She's going to get an x-ray this morning and then be with us in time for lunch."
"Excellent," Alex said. "But... well, if we're decorating, shouldn't we give Wizell's locker a sign that says 'Quit milking it, you pussy'?"
Wizell nailed her in the face with a roll of scotch tape.
Alex was in the den playing some sort of boxing video game with Wizell. Alex's character, Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini, was pummeling Wizell's version of Ali. As he neared a TKO, Wizell griped, "That fire must've ruined my reflexes. I swear, I can't move this thumb near as well as I used to..."
"There goes your social life," Alex said. On the screen, the digital Mancini served an upper-cut to The Greatest, dropping him to the mat.
She threw her arms up in victory and Wizell cursed at the game. He pointed at her and said, "It's a good thing you're a firefighter. If you were really Mancini, you would've ruined boxing forever with that dirty fighting."
"TKO, baby. Whine to your momma."
She glanced at the door and saw Bugs watching, a slight smile on her lips. "Hey, Bugsy. Come on, let's show Wizell how dangerous a girl fight can really be."
"I'll take a rain check on that. But could I pull you away for a minute or two? There's something I need to talk with you about."
"I'm all ears," Wizell said, resetting the game to fight against the computer.
Bugs thumped him on the back of the head and motioned to Alex. "Do you mind?"
"No, it's all right." She patted Wizell on the back when she passed by and said, "Next time, I'll be Mancini and you can be Duk Koo Kim."
"No way, man, I know how that fight ended!"
Alex laughed and followed Bugs into the apparatus bay. They went outside, walking across the grass to a quiet spot next to the kitchen window. Bugs leaned against the wall, withdrawing a cigarette and offering one to Alex. "No, thanks. What did you need to talk about?"
Bugs inhaled a lungful of smoke and blew it out slowly through her nose and mouth. Alex stood upwind, away from the exhaled flow and stuck her hands into her back pockets as she waited. Without preamble, Bugs blurted, "I slept with Murray last night."
Alex blinked, whipping her head around to look at Bugs' face, certain she had heard wrong. "You, uh..."
"I know how stupid it was, I know I should've walked away, should have known better, I told all that crap to myself this morning when I woke up and realized what I'd done, so we can skip that part of the lecture."
"Are we also skipping the part about your fiancé?"
"Shit, Heather. What were you thinking?"
"I was thinking that I had just fallen through a flaming building with this guy who held my hand on the way to the hospital. I remember feeling more scared than ever before and him being there for me. I wasn't thinking. When we landed in that building, before he pulled me up, I told myself that I was a goner. I didn't think there was a way out. My leg hurt, I figured I was probably paralyzed anyway... I was prepared to die. But then Murray picked me up and practically carried me out of that building. I'd be dead if he hadn't fallen with me."
Alex leaned against the wall, watching the traffic go by the station. "Don't try to prolong it," she suggested. "Let Murray know it was what it was; a one-night stand." She looked over and said, "That *is* what it is, right?"
"Yeah, of course," Bugs said, nodding emphatically. She took a drag on her cigarette and examining the ash before she flicked it into the grass. "It's just..."
"Uh-oh," Alex said, anticipating that even worse news was on its way.
"You never go into a fire without the proper tools. You get into trouble like that. But sometimes, when you're caught off-guard, you might find yourself in a flaming inferno without your halligen or your PASS device. We didn't, ah... Murray and I weren't fully equipped."
Alex frowned. "I saw you on the truck."
"After the fire," Bugs said. She raised her eyebrows and gestured with her cigarette. "After..."
"Oh, shit," Alex muttered. "You didn't use anything?!"
"Murray graduated from high school a long time ago, Alex. Guys don't exactly carry condoms around in their wallets these days. I... didn't plan on it."
"You and your fiancé... you don't have birth control pills? A diaphragm?"
Bugs averted her gaze to look intently at the grocery store across the street. "We decided we wanted kids right away. So we... we've been trying."
"I hope your fiancé has really dark skin," Alex said.
"There's a chance that we... that nothing really happened," Bugs said.
Alex rolled her eyes. "Either what you guys did can lead to a baby or it can't. There's not a whole lot of middle-ground on procreation. Which is it?"
"We... uh," she stopped and exhaled. Finally, she shook her head and rubbed her temple with two fingers. "We did a lot of stuff. But... I don't know, I can't remember where we drew the line. If anywhere."
"High school biology time..."
Bugs sighed. "We did what you do to have a baby. I just don't know if Murray... you know... when he was inside..."
"Oh, God, please, take these mental images away from me," Alex groaned. She turned and leaned against the wall next to Bugs. "Okay, where do I come in? What do you want me to do?"
"I don't know. I just kind of had to tell someone. I thought you'd be the least judgmental, but I guess I was wrong."
Alex laughed. "Oh, no, you were right on the money. You do *not* want Chief Leary or Franklin or, hell, even Holt finding out about what you just told me. You slept with another firefighter. The Chief is highly intolerant of this kind of thing." She brushed her mouth and thought about her options. "Okay. I assume you know about the morning-after pill? Is that an option?"
"My regular doctor is friends with my family. He went to college with my fiancé, so... even with the confidentiality..."
Alex nodded. "The fact that someone close to you knows is a little..."
"Gross. And I'd think about it every time we ran into each other. And who knows, he may spill the beans."
"Does confidentiality not mean anything to this guy?"
Bugs shrugged. "There's protocol and then there's friends-for-life. There's a chance he'd bring up prescribing the pills the next time they were out for a good-ol'-boy drinking binge. I can't risk it getting out."
Alex sighed, "Jesus, Bugs, you're really in it." She scratched her cheek and shook her head. "All right, I know a doctor who can help us. She'll check you out and get you a morning-after pill. And from now on, if you're going to make mistakes like this, get your hands on some birth control, all right?"
Bugs nodded and said, "It was just that it seemed like Murray was the only real thing, you know? After the fire?" She took a drag off her cigarette and shrugged. "I called my fiancé on the phone and he... was scared. And he was compassionate and loving. But there was a voice in the back of my mind that kept saying 'He doesn't get it. He doesn't get how scary it was, or how I thought I was going to die or how I *prepared* myself to die. And he'll never get it.' And then, there was Murray. Who not only went through it with me, but saved my life. And... it wasn't just about sex, Alex. It was about him being there. And me being there. And just... being there right then. You know?"
"Yeah," Alex admitted. She chewed her bottom lip and sagged against the wall again. "Look, we'll have my doctor friend look you over, make sure Murray didn't give you any STDs or vice versa. She'll make sure everything's good. With any luck, your fiancé is none-the-wiser and you go on living with this secret. Can you do that?"
"Yeah," Bugs nodded. "Thanks, Alex."
"No problem." She patted Bugs on the shoulder and said, "I'll get those tests set up this afternoon, after shift, okay?"
"Sure. I owe you one."
"We're good," Alex assured her. "Just... for the love of God, never pull me aside to tell me you slept with Wizell."
Bugs laughed and said, "Believe me, that happens and you'll read about it in my suicide note."
They headed back inside, spotting Murray in the den with Wizell. She put a hand on Bugs' shoulder and said, "Go across the bay."
"And do what?"
"I don't care... just mill about smartly," she said, meaning for Bugs to just wander around and look busy. Bugs headed towards the equipment locker and Alex went into the den. She rounded the chair and straddled Murray's legs, blocking the TV. He cleared his throat and looked up at her with his eyebrows raised. "Not that I'm complaining about the view, but I'm kind of in the middle of something here..."
"Go talk," Alex said.
"Go," she said, nodding into the bay. "Talk."
Murray looked over his shoulder and followed her gaze. He spotted Bugs standing by the equipment. He sighed and handed her his controller. He pulled his legs back and stood up. "You know?"
"A little. Go on, have a nice chat."
He nodded and slipped out of the room. As Alex sat down, Wizell watched Murray go and said, "Who does he have to talk to?"
"Again... he knows."
Wizell sighed and shook his head, hitting his controller to resume the game. "Ya stop watching a soap opera for one week and suddenly you don't know any of the characters..."
Alex laughed and patted his shoulder. "It's all right. You'll be back in the swing of things before you know it. Now..." she said, picking up her controller. "Prepare your ass for a royal reaming."
Alex unlocked her apartment door, tossed her bag inside and went back down the hall. She picked up the package resting on top of her neighbor's welcome mat and rapped her knuckles against the wall. She heard the chair hit the wall - a steady series of bangs - and then the shuffling of a walker being pushed across the hardwood floor. When the door opened, the security chain was still in place and a moon-shaped face peered out at her.
"Hello, Mr. Round," she said, lifting the package. "You have a delivery."
"Ooh!" he said, his high-pitched voice wavering. He closed the door and moved the chain out of the way. When the door opened again, his entire body was revealed. Alex always thought he looked like one of those "It's a Boy!" balloons with arms and legs made of ribbon. He was wearing a green sweater and a white shirt with a bowtie, his entire wardrobe apparently bought from Stock Grandpas 'R Us. He smiled up at her, his glasses perched on the end of his button-nose. "Who is it from?"
"Your son," she said, reading the return address as she handed it over. Both the addressee and sender names ended with Round, so Alex was forced to accept the fact that this man had actually grown to fit his name. He took the package, smiling down at it. "Looks like another bottle of Scotch," she guessed.
"Oh, yes, yes, he's too good to me!"
"Enjoy it, Mr. Round."
He nodded and said, "Oh, I will! I will! And you'll have to bring your boyfriend around and share some with me!"
Alex sighed. "I've told you, Mr. Round..."
"Yes, the girls, I remember. But I figured that if you were going to let that man drive your car, then..."
Alex blinked, not hearing the rest of what Mr. Round said. "Wait a minute," she interrupted, putting a hand on his wrist. "What do you mean 'drive my car'? Who did you see in my car? When?"
He shrugged. "I don't know... It was a few nights ago, pretty late. I just assumed he had driven it somewhere."
"Start from the beginning," she said, heart pounding. "A few days ago, you saw a man in my car? What time was it?"
"Well, I was looking out my window at the stars, as I always do, you know. It must have been past eleven. And, you know, the view from up here is so much better when you get above all the street lights and headlights and..."
"Please, Mr. Round..."
He cleared his throat, hugging his package to his chest. "Well, I happened to look down and I saw your Jeep. I saw someone in it and, at first I just assumed it was you. Then, the door opened and a man got out. He walked across the alley and got into another car and drove away. I figured he had driven you someplace."
"Can you describe the man?"
"He was just a shadow to me. I'm sorry. Did I do something wrong?"
"No, Mr. Round, I'm sorry. I shouldn't be grilling you like this. Thank you for telling me."
She bid him farewell and practically ran into her apartment. Her cell phone *had* been in her car. Whoever had broken in had to have stolen it. She grabbed her house phone and dialed her cell, listening angrily for whoever it was to answer. After seven rings, it went to voice mail. She cursed and hung up, heading across the apartment and staring out the window.
She watched a limping dog, probably the same one from a few nights ago, inching down the sidewalk, trying to keep up with her racing mind. Someone had broken into her Jeep, left no sign they'd been there and had stolen only her cell phone? The coins in her ashtray hadn't even been touched. And in this neighborhood, all cars were just bundles of pieces waiting to be dismantled and sold.
As she pondered the mystery, her mind kept tugging her back to the arsons. Lancaster was hiding something. She was sure of it.
The buildings were all insured. Maybe Lancaster had hired someone to torch them, get the money. Maybe the lawsuits against his company were bleeding him dry, sending him deeper and deeper into the bankruptcy well. He finds a firebug who likes to watch flames dance, gives him a couple of addresses and the guy gets his rocks off burning a few old and abandoned buildings. The firebug is satisfied and Lancaster gets to sit back, wait for the insurance company to call and he gets an instant payday.
But if he was going into debt, he certainly wasn't showing any signs of it. She was still getting called out to regular building inspections. If the company was losing money, how on earth could he afford to continue developing all these new buildings? She sighed and sat down on the couch, putting her feet up and closing her eyes.
It was pointless to play detective, especially when there was no real evidence Lancaster had done anything. She reached for the house phone again and dialed another number, this time getting a reply on the second ring. "Dr. Rachel Tom," a sleepy voice said. "Who may I ask is calling?
"The love of your life."
"Okay, Rhonda, but we'll have to make it fast. I'm expecting a call from Alex Crawford soon."
Though sure Rachel was kidding, Alex was surprised to feel her heart drop. "Hey, Rachel... please, don't joke like that."
"Okay," Rachel said. "Is something wrong?"
"Long day," Alex sighed, covering her eyes with her hand. She was surprised to find wetness on her cheeks. "God," she managed, sniffling and wiping at her eyes.
"Murray and Bugs?"
"Yeah," she breathed.
"The fire or the... other thing?" Rachel asked. Alex had spoken with Rachel about Bugs needing the morning-after pill earlier and had explained the whole sordid mess over the phone. Rachel had set the appointment for the next day, explaining that the 'morning-after' reference was a misnomer and the pill would still be effective if taken within 72-hours of intercourse.
"The fire. Murray wanted me on the roof with him. The Chief overruled him, sent Bugs up instead. If it had been me... Murray wouldn't have been watching as closely. I may have..."
"Hey, what did we just talk about yesterday? No second-guessing, no 'what if' or 'if only' talk. You're here. Bugs and Murray are both alive, too... *really* alive judging by the tests I'm supposed to do tomorrow." Alex couldn't resist smiling at that. "It just wasn't your time. It wasn't theirs, either."
Alex stared at the ceiling. "Time. That doesn't matter."
"What do you mean?"
"Someone is setting these fires. They're trying to kill firefighters. The fire yesterday, the rafters on the roof where Bugs was trying to cut had been sawed through. The roof was too weak and collapsed. Someone is trying to kill us, Rachel."
There was silence on the other end of the line. After a moment, she said, "My God, Alex. Who would... who could be that evil?"
Something snapped together in Alex's mind like puzzle pieces. She blinked and said, "Someone evil enough to call and tell you that I had died in the fire."
"You think the arson and my prank calls are connected to each other?"
"They have to be." She sat up. "My neighbor told me that he saw someone in my car a few nights ago. I figured they'd stolen my cell phone, but I didn't put it together with your crank calls until right now. Shit," she breathed. "This guy has all my numbers. He has all my contacts. He's the one who's been calling you."
"This is scary, Alex."
Alex hesitated and said, "He may not be targeting firefighters. He may be targeting *me.*"
To be continued in Chapter Thirteen
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