By Geonn Cannon

Chapter Fourteen,
To Live and Die in a Blaze of Glory

Rachel walked across her silent living room and pushed open the window, a wave of cool air washing over her. She leaned on the sill and put her face against the screen to peer down towards the street. Cars lined both sides of the block, restricting late-night travelers to a single lane. A few penumbras of light stretched forth from the lobbies of the other buildings on her block, street lights standing proudly in their own orbits of pale yellow.

A man in a green jumpsuit was meandering along the sidewalk in front of her building, using a back-mounted sprayer to wash the leaves from the building's stoop. From open windows, she could hear her neighbors James and Teresa singing along with their record player. Classical opera. James, rotund and proud, was the neighborhood Pavarotti. From the floor directly below her, a cat mewled for food from her owner.

Rachel smiled and stepped away from the window, remembering the old Sesame Street tune: "These are the people in your neighborhood."

She padded barefoot into the kitchen, humming the children's song, and turned on the light over the stove to check the levels of her cereal boxes. She spotted the dishes from her date with Alex, still sitting unwashed in the sink, and smiled at the memory. It had been a long time since she'd had a night like that. She could barely remember the last one. The way Alex had held her during the movie, the way they'd just seemed to fit together in one corner of the couch... the way they'd fit together later...

She sighed and grabbed a Snapple from the fridge, returning to the living room before popping the top. She wanted to call Alex, wanted to see what was happening. She knew the firehouse could be boring some nights... maybe she'd relish a call. Of course, they did sleep at the firehouse... if they had already gone to bed, she would hate to wake her up.

As she twisted her arm to look at her watch, the sound of breaking glass echoed up from the street. She nearly dumped her drink as she stood up and rushed back to the window. She looked down at the street again in search of the vandal responsible. The sidewalk washer was nowhere in sight, but neither was anyone else. She scanned up and down both sides of the street twice and saw nothing that looked like a car thief or opportunistic teen.

She was about to call the building manager when someone in the hall downstairs started yelling, "Fire! Fire, get out now! The building is on fire!"

She tied her robe around her waist, kicking herself for wearing only her pajama bottoms and a tank top, and hurried for the door. Outside in the hall, she headed immediately for the stairs. Her bare feet slapped on the steps and her robe flew around her legs as she descended. She peered over the banister and saw her neighbors doing the same, the opera music still blaring from the second-floor apartment. She could see fire light flickering on the ground floor, dancing back and forth across the walls. "Oh, hell, there really is a fire," she muttered.

When she reached the second-floor landing, she was surprised to see someone heading up towards her. He wore a green jumpsuit and black gloves, his face covered with an oxygen mask. She was confused until she saw the big semi-transparent tank on his back, the liquid inside sloshing back and forth in time with his ascent. The sidewalk washer. What the hell...? "Did you see what happened?" she asked.

"Building's on fire," the man said. Something about his voice... almost familiar. He had a vaguely Russian accent, but she couldn't think of anyone that matched the nationality.

"Why are you going up? Is someone trapped up there?"

"No," the man said, looking at her through the glass of his oxygen mask. "But there will be in a moment."

Before she could question what he meant, his gloved fist impacted her just below her rib cage and knocked the air from her lungs. Rachel started to collapse and the man ducked down, pressing his shoulder against her soft belly.

Hoisting her onto one shoulder like a bag of laundry, Martin carried her back the way she'd come. In the lobby below, the little bonfire he'd made began to spread. He heard the familiar buzzing of a fire alarm and smiled. Phases one and two were complete. Time to start phase three.


Alex's heart raced as they sped through familiar streets towards Rachel's apartment. *'That's where I bought her flowers,'* she thought, turning to watch the florist shop speed by. "Hey," Bugs said softly. Alex turned to look at her, surprised to see wetness in the other woman's eyes. "I'm sure she's okay. Someone probably just left their stupid space heater unattended."

"I'll throttle the bastard if I got all dolled up for a fucking space heater," Murray griped from the front seat.

"Take a number," Alex smiled, glad for a bit of relief from the pain growing in the center of her chest. 'Rachel will be fine. Rachel will be fine. The odds of her being hurt are astronomical.'

A more pessimistic voice reminded her of the arsonist running around.

'An arsonist who has only torched empty warehouses. An arsonist who, if we're right, is only torching buildings designed by his own company.'

'So far...'

'This building is from the forties,' she returned. 'No possible connection to Lancaster or Laenko or whatever the hell his name is.'

The truck came to a halt between two rows of cars parked bumper-to-bumper. "Ain't these people heard of parking garages? Pain in my ass..." Murray said, easing the massive truck down the narrow lane. Miraculously, he avoided hitting any cars in the process and stopped in front of the Spring Creek Apartments. Swinging the door open, he stood on the runner and shook his head. "Oh, mama. No one can tell me *this* isn't arson. Smell that? Whoo... smells like a gas truck took a piss down this street."

Wizell stood at the front of the truck, radio to his lips and talking to the Chief. "We're at the site now. Visible fire in the lobby of Spring Creek. Preparing an entrance to extinguish and then doing a door-to-door search to find and evac the residents. Advise, over."

Murray quirked his lips as he walked all the way around one of the cars at the curb and onto the sidewalk. "Have to walk through a freakin' maze just to get to the back of the truck." His boots splashed on the concrete and he looked down, frowning. "Holy hell, man. Yo, Lieutenant, did someone already try to put water on this thing?"

Wizell half-turned, radio still to his lips, when it happened.

A bag landed on the sidewalk a few feet away from Murray and burst on impact. The bag was on fire and, once it landed, so was the pool in which Murray was standing almost ankle-deep.

"Holy shit," Wizell breathed. "Murray! The gas is on the sidewalk!"

By the time the warning was spoken, it was too late. Murray's boots and bunking pants were aflame. He screamed, backpedaling towards the street as the fire surrounded his lower body. Bugs and Alex came around from the back of the truck, their progress stymied by the cars proximity to the side of the truck. After angling around one too many rear view mirrors, Alex unhooked the axe from her belt and began chopping them off as she neared them.

As she passed the equipment rack, she yanked a fire extinguisher from its bed and jumped onto the hood of the last car in the row. She fell to her ass, sliding down the hood until her boots hit concrete. Wizell had pulled Murray to safety and was using his own coat to beat the flames spreading on Murray's legs. "Oh, fuck," Bugs said.

Alex aimed the nozzle of the extinguisher and screamed Wizell's name as a warning. The Lieutenant stepped back, allowing her to coat Murray's charred legs with the chemicals. She tossed the extinguisher to Wizell and turned, looking over the building. Nothing but empty, dark windows. The lobby seemed abandoned, but that didn't mean a damn thing. "Do you see anyone?" she demanded. When Bugs refused to answer, still staring wide-eyed at the screaming Murray, Alex grabbed her collar and yanked her forward. "Do you see anyone?" she asked again.

"No, there are no residents visible," Wizell said, coughing into his glove. "And we're staying put until the Chief can get here."

"Firemen!" a voice across the street called. "Firemen!"

Alex and Bugs raced over, zeroing in on a rotund man in a button-down shirt and boxer shorts. "This fire... oh, hell, how the hell did the street get on fire? Is that fireman okay?"

"Is there anyone still in the building?" Alex asked, ignoring the man's questions. She was scanning the crowd for Rachel's face, praying she was somewhere in the back.

"I haven't seen the woman from the top floor. She's a doctor, I think..."

Alex felt something seize inside of her as she turned, eyes drawn to the top apartment. She started across the street, but Bugs stopped her. "We can't get in there until this sidewalk fire is out. And Wizell says we're not making a move until the chief and the engine can get here."

"Where are they?" Alex demanded.

"He's not sure."

Alex pulled away from Bugs and stormed to the end of the truck. Bugs trailed her. "Alex, we have to fall back. We have to be with Wizell when..."

"You can sit with Wizell and Murray," Alex interrupted as she unhooked the collapsible ladder from the side panel. It could be extended up to fifteen feet, but was now only about five feet long; easily manageable by one person. "I have to go," Alex said, hoisting the ladder onto her shoulder. "I have to do this. Listen, Wizell should've told you this and if anyone asks, he *did* alright? Get the A-Triple-F down on this sidewalk, get this fucking sidewalk extinguished. Heather! Do you hear me?"

"Yeah... what? You have to do what?" Bugs asked, trailing Alex. They were walking away from the Spring Creek Apartments. "What the hell are you going to do with a fifteen-foot ladder?! The fire is back that way!"

Alex ignored her and silently thanking the endless drills where she'd been forced to lug a thirty-footer the equivalent of nine flights of stairs. The metal clanged noisily next to her head, banging on her helmet, but it was barely even noticeable. As she approached the neighboring apartment, she saw that the pool of gasoline ended well before the front door of this building. No doubt about the target here... making her all the more certain as to the culprit.

Lancaster would pay.


The wind was knocked out of her lungs as she was tossed onto the bed. She bounced off the mattress and fell to the floor in a heap. An instant later, the man was on top of her and dragging her across the carpet until her head impacted the wall. "Please," she gasped, trembling as he hooked his hands under her armpits and dragged her into a sitting position. "Please, whatever you're going to do, please..."

"Shut up," he sighed.

He grabbed her wrists and fastened a pair of handcuffs to them. "Stay right there and I won't have to hurt you," he said. He moved back to the bedroom door. She tested the handcuffs, tugging on them to test the chain while casting anxious glances at the door. Who the hell was this man? Her mind raced, trying to place him. He seemed so vaguely familiar... the man she'd stood next to in the laundry room, the man on the corner who always seemed to buy his newspaper at the same time she did, the man...

The man next to her in the elevator!

She got onto her knees and crawled over her bed, searching the night stand for her cell phone. She had just found it when the man returned. "Please, no..."

He shoved her roughly back and grabbed the phone when it tumbled onto the mattress. He checked the display screen and then hurled the phone at the closet door. She hit the floor and crawled into the corner where he'd originally put her, praying he didn't punish her. "Where's your lighter?"

"What?" she asked.

"Your lighter," he sighed. "I brought everything but the damned lighter."

"T-the kitchen... one of the drawers in the kitchen..."

He grabbed her by the handcuff chain and pulled her towards him. She was half-dragged and half-crawling behind him and gasped when she realized his destination. The closet. She began to fight him, pulling with both hands to hold herself back. "No!"

"You're a trouble-maker. Get in there."

Her sister's face flashed in front of her, the smoke, the heat, her back aflame... "No! I can't go in there!"

He paused and looked down at her, then sighed and shoved her backwards again. "Fine." He jabbed a finger in her face and said, "Sit. Do not move."

She squeezed her eyes closed and shook her head frantically. "Just don't make me go in there. Please."

With a heavy sigh, he turned and walked from the room. Rachel crawled into the corner, covering her face with both trembling hands.


She carried the ladder into the building and ran up the stairs. The floors were all deserted, the residents most likely scrambling down to the street for safety. As she passed the third floor, a bare-chested man in sweatpants nearly ran her down. "What's with all the damn sirens?"

"Your building is on fire," she lied. "Get out. Now."

"Aww, shit, man, my dope!"

She grabbed his shoulder and shoved him towards the stairs. The druggie stumbled, but started his descent anyway.

At the top landing, she shouldered her way through the emergency fire door and set off an ear-ringing alarm. She ignored it, grabbing the ladder with both hands and carrying it like a lance as she ran across the roof. The alley between the two buildings was way too small for a ground ascent. But it was more than enough for a ladder to bridge the gap.

"Crawford?!" The Chief's voice made her jump, coming from the radio nestled between her bunking coat and her shirt. "What in the *hell*... What..."

She grabbed her radio and said, "I'm sorry, Chief." The only other thing she could think to say was, "I couldn't not."

With that, she silenced her radio and continued her mission.

She rested the ladder on the lip of the building, extending the sections until it rested on the edge of the Spring Creek building. She was panting, her arms and legs trembling as she crawled from one side to the other. Once on the roof of Rachel's building, Alex pulled off her helmet and yanked the hoodie up over her head, leaving only her face exposed. Her SCBA covered that, protecting her from the heat. She only prayed Rachel had something protecting *her.* Equipment in place, she grabbed her ladder and trotted across the roof until she found what she was looking for.

Rachel's skylight.

Grabbing the ladder with both hands, she rammed the sloped glass. The ladder sank into the dark room like a knife into a wound. She felt it hit something and peered down through the thick black-gray smoke. Angling the ladder until she felt it wedge against what she assumed was the couch, she stepped back and used her axe to clear a bigger hole in the skylight.

She mounted the ladder and slowly lowered herself into the apartment. Once on the ground, the entertainment center caught her eye. The same TV where they'd watched that sweet movie about the dwarf who liked trains... well, most of the movie, anyway... Rachel had almost fallen asleep in her arms right here... right *here*.

'Worry about that later,' she chided herself. She turned and scanned the living room. Smoke trickled across the ceiling of the entry hall, hesitantly spreading towards the living room and kitchen. The front door stood wide open, the hallway outside a vivid portrait of hell. Fire was on the stairs, quickly rising to pay a visit to the topmost resident. The smoke had already covered the ceiling, darkening every bright surface and leaving a thick cloud above her head.

Dropping into a crouch, she navigated the living room and felt along the floor. She banged her arms against the legs of chairs, against corners of a desk, into the wall. She couldn't find anything, could barely see now. The smoke was getting thicker. She found the hallway door, knowing it led to the bedroom. It branched off from the entry hall, mere inches from the open door.

She reached up as she passed, pushing the front door shut. With the skylight open, she knew it wouldn't be long before the fire sniffed out a new source of oxygen and came knocking. "Rachel?" she called, one hand on the wall next to her to guide her way. "Rachel, can you hear me?"

Her voice, filtered through her breathing mask, didn't carry very far. She passed the bathroom, kicking herself for not bringing the thermal imager, and crawled past. The smoke around her was a wool blanket now, the air almost certainly not breathable. If Rachel were still here... if she were still conscious...

She put that thought out of her mind and moved forward. "Rachel!" she called again. Still no reply.

The bedroom door was closed and she had an image of Rachel, asleep in bed, slowly enveloped in smoke and gases until...

She did a quick scan of the doorframe and saw no signs of a flashover, put the back of her hand against the wood and felt no signs of heat beyond. She turned the knob and pushed the door open, entering the bedroom on her knees. Rachel's bed was empty, the covers pulled taut over the mattress indicating she hadn't been to bed yet.

Could she have been in the living room? Had she somehow missed...?

There! A muffled sound, like a voice. She moved across the room and crawled around the bed. There on the floor, between the night stand and the bed frame, Rachel looked up at her with terrified eyes. Her mouth was wrapped in a wet rag that also covered her nose; not the best protection against smoke and carbon monoxide, but definitely better than nothing.

Alex knelt by her and touched her lover's soot-covered face, brushing her hair away from her eyes. "We're going to get you out of here, okay?"

Rachel lifted both hands - they were bound by handcuffs - pawed at her mouth.

"No, honey, we need to keep that on... its helping you breathe." She helped Rachel out of the corner and said, "Stay low... hands and knees. Just stay with me and I'll get you out of here." She looked around and whispered, "Is Lancaster still here?"

Rachel nodded, tears in her eyes.

"Okay, we'll get out of here before he even knows I got you. Okay? Now come on, I'll lead the way."

They got onto their hands and knees and quick-crawled out of the bedroom. The front door of the apartment was now a rectangle of firelight. If Alex hadn't closed the door, the entry hall would likely have been in flames by now, cutting off their only point of egress.

As she crawled past the open bathroom door, she heard Rachel cry out behind her. She misinterpreted the sound and turned to look back... missing the dark shape that stepped out from the bathroom like the specter of some dark nightmare.

Laenko reared his foot back and buried his boot in Alex's stomach. She rose a few inches with the impact and rolled to one side with a cough. Laenko planted several more kicks to her torso before he stepped forward and slammed his foot down on her face. The oxygen mask cracked, but didn't shatter.

"Your irons!" Laenko shouted through his own oxygen mask. He held up a gun so that she could see it, even in the dying light, and repeated, "Remove your irons!"

At the madman's mercy, Alex unhooked her axe and halligen tool and tossed them both across the hall. "How in the hell are you planning to get out of here, Marty?" she asked.

"The name is Maksim," he replied, his voice now heavily accented. "You will show proper respect!"

"You're a moron, Marty," Alex said. "We're all going to die right here. Was that your plan?"

"Yes," Rachel gasped, the wet cloth around her neck. She was sobbing openly now, her hands between her knees. "He's sacrificing himself to kill you, Alex!"

Alex couldn't believe her ears. "Why?!"

"To live and die in a blaze of glory... to have the flames carry me from this life. It is the death you have been seeking Alex. The memorial to which you will always be remembered. This building will serve as our tombstone, Alex. You, a fallen firefighter... braving this inferno to save the one you love? You will go down in history, Alex. Perhaps they will write a song about you one day."

He raised the gun and shrugged.

"Or... perhaps not."

"No!" Rachel cried.

Laenko hesitated, raising the gun slightly before he turned to look at Rachel. "You are an innocent. Perhaps I will allow you escape... I have no issue with you once Alexandra is dead and gone."

"The ladder is in the living room," Alex said to Rachel, not moving her eyes from Lancaster's oxygen mask. "Pull it up after you and use it to crawl to the building next door."

"No!" Rachel repeated. "I'm not leaving you!"

"Such loyalty. Perhaps if Alexandra is not physically able to go..." Laenko said. "Perhaps you would leave her then?"

They didn't have time to consider what he was asking. Laenko changed the angle of his shot slightly and fired. Alex howled in anguish and grabbed her left thigh with both hands. "Go, Dr. Rachel," Laenko said. "Go or it will be as if you fired the weapon yourself." He fired again and Alex's body jerked. He had hit the same leg, a little closer to the knee this time. Alex was twitching on the floor, her body curled into the fetal position.

Laenko looked at Rachel and shrugged. "Well, Alexandra. It would appear as though your girlfriend is as stubborn as you are." He turned the gun and said, "I will do you a favor... release you from your misery and save you from a fiery death with one small bullet."

"Do it," Alex said hoarsely. "Just... let her go."

"Such loyalty," he repeated.

"Please," Alex all but sobbed.

Laenko sighed and said, "If you are going to beg..." He cocked the hammer and said, "Good-bye, Alexandra."

The next sound Alex heard was Laenko's howl of pain. Opening her eyes, she saw Rachel pulled the bloody halligen away from Laenko's arm, the claw-hammer end dripping with blood. She adjusted her grip and swung the three-pronged tool once more, burying the blade this time in the soft flesh of Laenko's stomach. The blow knocked him back and something cracked as he slammed against the bathroom door. He slumped, his hands trembling as they wrapped around the tool imbedded in his gut.

Rachel unhooked his oxygen mask and fit it over her own face before turning to Alex. "Are you hurt? Can you..."

"My leg... Oh, fuck, Rachel..."

Rachel looked down. The left leg of Alex's bunking pants was dark red, the spatter on the wallboard behind her indicating that the bullet had gone out the other side. "It hurts so much," Alex breathed.

"I won't leave you," Rachel swore. "Come on." She knelt and got Alex's arm around her shoulder and pulled her up. They moved at a crouch towards the living room, the flow of sweat on Rachel's face starting up again as if someone had turned on a faucet. Alex was like dead weight, her boots scraping behind her like weights.

"Y'can't... lee me... here," Laenko gasped. They turned to look at him, at the blood trailing from his mouth like drool. His eyes were wide and glassy, his face white where the oxygen mask had protected him.

"To live and die in fire," Alex managed to say. "It's time for the dying part, you sick fucker."

They turned, leaving Laenko alone in the hall. "There's a ladder coming out of my skylight," Rachel said as they inched towards the couch.

"Yeah," Alex said. "I like to make an entrance on the third date."

"Fifth date," Rachel laughed, coughing a bit into her mask. They stopped at the foot of the ladder and stared up at the night sky through the jagged hole in the skylight. "Alex, are you going to be able to do this?"

"Yes," Alex said. "Definitely." She put a hand on Rachel's ass and pushed her forward. "You go. I'll follow you."

Rachel hesitated, cupping Alex's head with both hands. Through the hood, the helmet, her mask and everything between them, they looked at each other. "Come up after me," Rachel whispered, her breath fogging the mask. "I will not leave this building until you are with me, do you understand? I cannot leave without you."

Alex clutched Rachel's neck and bumped their oxygen masks together. "Go. I'm stubborn, but I'm not suicidal. Go. I'll be right behind you. I just don't want to fall on you if it takes me more than one try."

"Okay," Rachel said. She turned and gripped the ladder, taking the rungs much faster than Alex thought she would. When she was at the top, she turned and gripped the highest rung with both hands. "Okay, Alex. Hurry!"

She grabbed the highest rung she could, lifting her right leg and placing it on the lowest. The heel of her boot caught the rung and held her foot in place. Good. Good. Excellent. She exhaled and looked up; the ladder was suddenly a mile long, stretching up towards Mars or Saturn or God, she couldn't do it, she wouldn't make it, there was no way with one leg...

'It's okay. We didn't expect a woman to do as good as the guys, anyway.'

The voice was loud and clear, echoing in her helmet as if it had been broadcast over the radio. Captain Al Shannon. He hadn't wanted a female in the academy. Thought she would lower the curve, let a lot of sub-par male candidates into the department. 'Hell in a hand basket,' had been his phrase of choice. Using both hands and neither leg, Alex pulled herself up.

*'Need some help, sweetheart?'*

She reached up, her arm trembling, gritting her teeth as she reached for another rung. The heat was unbearable. Her uniform hung on her like an anchor, the oxygen tank on her back gripping her shoulders as if it was actively trying to pull her back into the apartment. The night sky surrounding Rachel's face looked so inviting...

*'I'll just give your tush a little push, how's that, darlin'?'*

Crying out, she went up another rung. She lifted her right foot, her left foot banging uselessly against the metal ladder.

"Please, Alex!" Rachel cried from above.

One hand up, hold tight. Don't fall. Pull...

Hold tight, next hand up. Lift leg, drag leg... oh, God, her shoulders burned, her back was on fire, wasn't it? She couldn't breathe, couldn't see, her lungs were on fire... something was pulling on her, oh, God, someone had grabbed her jacket with both hands! Laenko was alive and he was pulling her...


"Please!" Rachel sobbed. Her hands were balled into fists around Alex's jacket, pulling on her like she was a rag doll. They both fell to the roof, the smoke billowing out of the hole behind Alex. They clung to each other, Alex on top of her on the simmering roof, both of them rasping, staring at each other through the fogged glass of oxygen masks. "You're out!" Rachel said, her muffled voice high-pitched and almost frantic.

"Get the ladder!" Alex said, forcing herself up onto her one good leg. Rachel struggled with the ladder and eventually pulled it up rung-by-rung as if it was climbing her. The ladder stretched fifteen feet above her head and fell backwards, hitting the roof with a loud 'clank!'

Alex pointed to the edge of the building and Rachel got to her feet, dragging the ladder to where it needed to be. Alex hopped along after, her left leg now completely useless, meeting Rachel at the edge. "Oh, God," Rachel breathed, looking down.

The neighborhood was now completely awash in yellow, white and red lights, flickering and flashing and dancing on the brick walls all around them. Alex was panting, weak in every sense of the word, looking at the ladder that was their last hurdle before freedom. She pulled off her helmet, yanked her SCBA off and dropped it onto the roof. "Rachel," she said, her voice hoarse.

Rachel looked at her, saw the oxygen mask was off and removed her own. Her hair was wild, her face dark with soot. "Where did your handcuffs go?"

Rachel lifted both hands, revealing the cuffs were still intact and locked... only they both hung from her right wrist. The thumb on her left hand, however, looked like a slab of rubber someone had tacked on with crazy glue. She had dislocated her own thumb to get out of the restraints. "We don't have much time," she said. "Do you go first?"

"You go first," Alex said.

"Because you don't want me to see if you fall to your death?" Rachel asked, eyes gleaming with tears.

Alex touched Rachel's face, smearing soot with the palm of her gloves. "I love you."

"You proved that tonight," Rachel said, gripping Alex's forearm. She unhooked the oxygen tank hanging from Alex's back and dropped it onto the ground before going after the buttons of her bunker coat.

"Are you raping me?" Alex asked, smiling weakly.

"Still have your sense of humor," Rachel said with a smile. When her coat was gone, Rachel said, "Your uniform. How much does it weigh?"

"Fifty pounds... give or take..."

"Good Lord," Rachel breathed. Leaving the pants but emptying the pockets, Rachel said, "Okay. Get on the ladder. Hands and knees." Alex did as she said, her left leg sticking out as she couldn't bend the knee, and peered down at the filthy alley below. Water was running through it like a river, meaning that her colleagues were hard at work below. Rachel was now on top of her, arms on either side of her head, gripping the edges of the ladder. "Push with your right foot. Climb with your hands like you're climbing a regular ladder."

Sweat dripped from Alex's face as she did as Rachel suggested. Push, grip with one hand and then the other. It was slow going, but Rachel was right behind her whispered, "Good... just a little more, good, good, we're getting there, baby..."

When Alex fell onto the neighboring roof, a sense of euphoria washed over her. She rolled onto her back, opening her arms as Rachel came off the ladder behind her. "You did it," Rachel said.

Alex rose onto her elbows and kissed Rachel, long and hard, before rolling onto her side. "We still have four flights of stairs to get down. Help me up?"

She put an arm around Rachel and limped back to the stairwell door. Adrenaline faded as they headed down and the pain in Alex's knee slowly became unbearable. Her entire pants leg was sodden red, her foot leaving a wet and bloody trail in its wake. With every step, she felt the blood pooling in her boot. The pain was unmistakable, but she didn't want to think about what this injury meant to her life, her career... she tightened her arm around Rachel and closed her eyes as they stepped out into the cold night air.

Paramedics descended on them as they entered the command area. The entire middle lane of the street was now filled with fire trucks, dozens of faceless firemen weaving in and out between their vehicles. The street looked like a plate of spaghetti, hose lines lying on top of each other, piled on top of each other, almost sinking in a sea of water.

The paramedics helped Rachel and Alex walk all the way to the corner, loading them into the waiting ambulance where they were each stretched out onto gurneys. Another oxygen mask was fitted over Rachel's face, her eyes rotating weakly until she focused on the woman lying next to her. Two of the EMTs had cut away the leg of Alex's pants and were working on the bullet wounds.

Alex turned her head slowly, eyelids hanging heavily. Her eyes were the brightest part of her entire body, almost painfully blue against her soot- and smoke-smeared face. She smiled lazily behind her oxygen mask and reached out, opening and closing her gloved fingers in a grabbing gesture. Rachel reached out and grabbed it, squeezing as tight as she could.

She heard someone say, "We have to get her to a hospital," before slamming the doors of the ambulance shut. The same someone said, "We're losing her."

They were halfway to Shepherd Memorial Hospital when Alex's grip weakened and her hand dropped away from Rachel's.

To be concluded in the epilogue

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