By Geonn Cannon

Chapter Two,
Finding a Round Tuit

A blue-and-white name tag swung precariously from the flap of the doctor's lab jacket. It read "R. Tom, MD." As Dr. Tom treated and bandaged her arm, Alex played a little game with herself trying to determine what the initial stood for. The doctor didn't look like a Roberta. Rhonda didn't seem right, either. They chatted about inane things, the conversation mostly veering towards the heroic Lieutenant Snipe the news channels were all clamoring to interview.

When the bandage was set, Dr. Tom looked at her work and said, "These burns... did you receive them while helping Lieutenant Snipe?"

Alex smirked. "Actually... I feel kind of bad breaking this to you, but..."

"Snipe doesn't exist?" Tom said. She raised her eyebrows and curled her lips in a knowing smile.

Alex laughed. "How did you know?"

"I was sent on a snipe hunt once. Medical school. They sent me off in search of a box of 'round tuits.'"

Alex frowned and shook her head. "I don't get it."

"T-U-I-T," she spelled. "A round tuit. As in 'I'll get a round tuit.'" When she said it like that, Alex laughed out loud and nodded. Dr. Tom grinned and said, "After that, I swore I'd never again fall for a snipe hunt." She glanced conspiratorially over her shoulder and stepped closer to the bed. "Were you the one who saved him?"

"I went in with Lieutenant Wizell. I saw him get engulfed and just did what I was supposed to. It was my job."

"Modest much?" Rachel asked.

Alex shrugged. "It's not modesty so much as... I don't want the recognition. There was a guy in the academy who told us that we weren't training to be heroes, we were training to be firefighters. He wanted to make sure we got that through our heads right off. A few years ago, Chief Leary was involved in a rescue. He told a reporter that Lieutenant Snipe had done it. It kind of steam-rolled from there."

"No one's figured out that this guy doesn't exist?"

"As far as the media knows, he's just a very secretive guy. His phone number is unlisted; he likes his privacy and his friends respect that. And just to cover our asses, every local firehouse lists a Joe Snipe on the duty roster every couple of months. He rotates."

The doctor laughed and said, "Brilliant strategy. By heaping the glory on the fictional guy, you get privacy for yourselves."

Alex rocked slightly on the edge of the bed before sliding to the floor. "You know, I really am fine... I shouldn't keep you. There are probably other patients..."

"Yeah, a few," Tom grinned. "If you're sure you're okay?"

"Well, I'm not exactly thrilled to leave," Alex said. "But I really shouldn't monopolize your time."

"Okay, then." She nodded at the elevator. "By the way, if you wanted to go say hi to your friend, I'm sure they wouldn't gripe too much. Just so long as you keep it short."

"Okay, yeah. Thank you."

"No problem, Ms. Crawford."

"Call me Alex," she said, unsure of what prompted her to say it.

The doctor nodded. "Okay. Alex. In that case, I'm Rachel."

*'Rachel,'* Alex thought, watching the other woman walk away. *'I have a new favorite name.'*


Wizell was in the burn unit, his neck and ears wrapped by thick bandages. His eyes cut to the door when she walked in, his lips pulling back in a fierce grimace. He jabbed a finger in her direction and sneered, "You! I've been looking for you!"

"What did I do?" Alex asked, shocked.

"My boots! My brand-new boots! Ruined!" He slapped the bed. "Ruined, I say!"

Alex laughed and said, "Okay, I apologize for not dragging you from the fire feet-first. I'll know better next time." She approached the bed and rested her uninjured hand on the railing while keeping the other behind her back. "Beyond that, how are you doing?"

"My ears, neck, bah. Just skin. But those boots. Man, I searched weeks for those boots!" He fake-sobbed and said, "Those were the perfect boots. And now? Gone. Gone, gone, gone!"

Alex brought her bandaged hand out from behind her back and placed a teddy bear on the bedside table. The bear's tiny plush paws were wrapped around an ice cream shake she had smuggled into the ward. Wizell's eyes widened and he said, "But boots come and go. Friends. Friends are forever." He licked his lips and asked hopefully, "Are you gonna spoon-feed your poor, disabled friend?"

"No," Alex said. "That's non-negotiable."

"I'm injured!" Wizell whined.

"Which is precisely the reason I asked a certified medical professional to assist you." She stepped to one side and said, "Brandi?"

The EMT from earlier came into the room and smiled warily down at the injured man. "She swears to me you're a good guy."

Wizell beamed.

"Get well soon, Weasel."

"Yeah," Wizell scoffed, eyeing Brandi. "Like I have an incentive to leave this place..."


It was late afternoon by the time Alex managed to get out of the hospital. Chief Leary was upstairs talking to Wizell and had offered to give her a ride back to the station when he finished up. The sun was starting to set, casting red and orange light over the parking lot. She stood in the shadow of the Chief's truck and watched a group of orderlies smoke in a designated area next to the building. Her bunkers were folded nearly in the back of Leary's truck, her equipment weighing the clothes down so they wouldn't fly away. She was wearing the trousers and t-shirt she'd been wearing when the call went out.

"Hi," someone beside her said. "It's Crawford, right?"

She straightened up and had turned around before her brain registered the voice. She smiled and said, "Hello, Dr. Tom."

"Rachel," the doctor reminded her with a shy smile.

"Then I have to be Alex," she said. She felt something strange talking to this woman. It was... nice, but uncomfortable at the same time.

Rachel nodded. "Okay, Alex. I was on my way out, saw you standing over here by yourself..." She shrugged and looked across the parking lot. Her hair was getting in her eyes and it took every ounce of restraint in Alex's body not to reach out and brush it aside. "I don't know, I saw you over here and I was just wondering if you wanted to maybe grab a drink or... or something? There's a bar not far from here or a restaurant..."

Alex interrupted, "Actually... I'm sorry. I would love to take you up on that, I would. But I'm... I'm actually still on duty."

"Oh," Rachel said. She turned away, touching her forehead absently as she desperately sought something else to look at. "I should have realized, I-I just... I didn't think that..."

"It's okay," Alex said. "I get off tomorrow at noon. Maybe we could meet for... for some lunch, maybe?"

"That would be great," Rachel said, her smile returning. Alex was grateful; anything to see that smile again. "Um... do you have a cell phone or..."

"Yeah, I'll give you that number." Without thinking, she plucked a pen from the breast pocket of Rachel's blouse. She blushed slightly when she realized what she had done, quickly recovering and taking the small notepad the brunette offered. "This is for my cell. You can reach me any time, but if it goes to voice mail..."

"Okay, no problem. And I'll call you if anything comes up to keep me from meeting you."

Alex nodded, unable to think of anything coherent to say.

Rachel took her pen back and glanced at the number before she folded the notebook paper and slipped it into the pocket of her slacks. "So I'll give you a call, let you know where I'll be... it'll be fun."

"Yeah," Alex said, still a bit dumbfounded by what was happening. She nervously scratched below the collar of her t-shirt, unsure of a subtle way to ask what she was thinking. Finally, she simply said, "It's... a date, right?"

Rachel laughed and said, "Yes, Alex, it's a date."

"A... date like..."

Rachel stepped forward and stretched up. She put one hand on Alex's shoulder to balance herself as she pecked her on the cheek. When they parted, Alex was blushing and Rachel was smiling. "It's a date," Rachel said again.

"Okay," Alex said quietly.

"I'll see you tomorrow... Lieutenant Snipe."

Rachel turned and walked across the parking lot. She waved hello to Chief Leary as their paths crossed. Leary used a remote on his keychain to unlock his truck. As Alex climbed into the passenger seat, she whispered a prayer that he hadn't seen the kiss. When Leary climbed into the car, he motioned at the retreating doctor with his head. "What'd the doc want?"

"Um... she... Talk. She, uh, wanted to talk."

Leary glanced at her and smirked. "Too bad she couldn't find anyone who spoke fluent English."

Alex rolled her eyes and smiled indulgently. "Just drive, Chief."


Leary parked and climbed out, grabbing a bag from the back of the truck before heading towards the apparatus bay. "Chief, if you don't mind... could I beg off the cleaning duties? I was kind of hoping to get Lancaster out of the way tonight so tomorrow morning would be all clear."

"Yeah, all right," Leary said. He turned and started walking backwards so he could be facing her as he continued speaking. "Murray and Jones probably took care of all the cleaning by now anyway."

"Because they're so responsible," Alex nodded.

Leary scoffed and waved at her before he disappeared around the brick outcropping. Alex headed for her Jeep, fishing her cell phone from her jacket pocket. She dialed Lancaster's number from memory as she unlocked her Jeep. She left the door open as she listened to the phone ring in her ear. She grumbled about the fact that she had this jerk's number memorized and searched for a pen. She found a napkin on the passenger seat and wrote, "Rachel Tom - Lunch."

She stuck the note into the sun visor as the ringing suddenly stopped. A clipped voice announced, "Martin Lancaster."

"Mr. Lancaster, this is Alexandra Crawford with the Shepherd Fire Department. I was wondering if now would be a good time for the inspection you contacted us about."

"Oh! Alex!"

She cringed at the familiar use of her first name, but decided not to waste her time correcting him. She knew it would do no good. "Yes, Mr. Lancaster. I meant to stop by earlier, but..."

"Don't be silly. I saw on the news. Is everyone all right?"

"Yes, for the most part," she said with a glance at her bandaged wrist. She had a SFD windbreaker in the backseat she could use to cover the damage and avoid any sympathy from Lancaster. "I was thinking I could swing by now if you had the address..."

"Oh, yes, certainly." She pulled the reminder from the sun visor and wrote the address below Rachel Tom's name. "I can meet you there in a half hour, if that's all right."

"Sounds perfect. See you then, Alex."

She snapped the cell phone shut and fought the urge to curse. She took a deep breath, started the Jeep and pulled calmly out of her space.


Martin Lancaster was the CEO of Lancaster Designs, an architectural firm that was responsible for designing a good forty to fifty percent of the town. Martin was the son of the company's founder and had only recently been promoted to his current position. Unlike his father before him, Martin complied with all the fire safety regulations and welcomed the fire department's routine inspections of his company's newest projects. Normally, inspections were done by official investigators, but the town of Shepherd had decided that it would save the city the cost by having firefighters rotate the duty.

When her turn had come around, Alex had welcomed the break in her day and headed out to give the new building her typical once-over. Unfortunately, Martin Lancaster had fallen head-over-heels for her at first sight. Since that first inspection, he had been requesting that "Firefighter Alex Crawford be the one to inspect the building." Alex, seeing no way to refuse without drawing undue attention to herself, bit the bullet and went out.

She parked in front of the newest building, the banner hanging over the front door proclaiming that it was the FUTURE HOME of something called Langford, Taggart and Warren, which she assumed was either a law firm or accounting group. Either way, she really didn't care. She paused by the door of her Jeep to pull on the windbreaker and make sure the sleeve extended far enough to cover her wrist bandage. That done, she headed for the door and pushed the temporary buzzer.

A few seconds after she announced her arrival, Martin Lancaster practically skipped down the stairs into the lobby. He brushed aside a plastic sheet hanging in front of the door and smiled at her like a five-year-old presented with a new toy. He unlocked the door and pushed it open. "Alex! Welcome!"

"Thank you, Mr. Lancaster," she said. She hoped by keeping it formal, he would pick up the hint and keep the meeting as strictly business.

Lancaster was a bookish, thin man with wire-framed glasses, the collar of his shirt looking a little wide around his neck. He wore a suit that had obviously been tailored for someone a little bulkier, his brown hair slicked back against his skull. He looked like a high school kid on career day. Alex tepidly shook his outstretched hand before scanning the lobby of the building. She had a checkpoint list to follow. A few high points, bing, bang, boom, she was out of there.

"So, where would you like to begin, Alex?"

'Same place we always begin, you nebbish little nerd,' she thought. Out loud, she said, "I just need your forms..."

He opened the briefcase he was carrying, balancing it against his thigh as he searched through the pockets. He handed her the building permit and construction documents, all of which were required to be turned in. She stuck them onto her clipboard without checking them; she knew Lancaster and knew that everything was in order.

She was just thankful she didn't have the task of doing all of his inspections for all of his buildings. The foundation, plumbing and electrical, floor system, preliminary framing and electrical systems all required their own inspections at various stages of the construction. Lancaster wasn't present for them, so he didn't request her presence. All she had to do was tour the building, make sure the fire exits were clearly marked, sprinklers and smoke detectors were present and working and walk the perimeter of the roof. Easy as pie.

If only Martin Lancaster wasn't dogging her every step, she might actually find the process relaxing.


They finished their tour where they had started, in the lobby, and Alex signed the certificate that gave Lancaster a passing grade. He placed it in his briefcase and thanked her for her time. She assured him it was no trouble and made a bee-line for the door. Unfortunately, Lancaster was quicker than he looked and kept up with her. "I was wondering, if you have a few moments free, if you'd like to grab a coffee or..."

"I'm sorry. I'm due back at the firehouse."

"Oh. Well, I was just thinking that since you finished the inspection so quickly, you might have a little leeway on when you--"

"I really should get going."

Lancaster followed her onto the sidewalk. "Perhaps after your shift, then."

"I'm sorry, Mr. Lancaster, but I'm afraid I have to decline."

His smile seemed to collapse under its own weight and he nodded. "Okay. Well... yes, of course. I'm sorry to have imposed, Alex."

She forced a smile as she climbed into her Jeep. "Have a good day, Mr. Lancaster."

"And you."

He went back inside as she started the engine and breathed a sigh of relief. She had been wondering when he would make the jump and broach the topic of actually going out on a date. Now that it was out there, there was a chance he would back off. It was a small chance, and she wasn't confident, but it was still there.

As she pulled away from the curb, she realized she had just been asked out twice in one shift. It was a new personal record and, she would have to check with Murray, but it may also be a departmental record. Smiling, she drove back to the firehouse to brag about her double-proposal.


By the time she got back to the firehouse, the engine and medic truck were both absent, most likely responding to an aid call. The ladder stood in the center of the garage, looking lonely and abandoned. Alex walked past it, heading for the back of the apparatus bay. Three rooms were tucked against the back wall; the game room, with a pool table and a few donated arcade games was the center of them. To her right was the 'den,' where they gathered to watch TV or listen to the occasional ball game on the radio.

To her left was the bunk area and bathroom, both of which were dark at the moment. The Chief's office was separate from the other rooms, on the side of the bay opposite the locker area. She could see Leary through the glass, speaking to someone on the phone. She headed over, knocking on the doorframe and mimicking writing a signature. He held up the clipboard to let her know he'd signed her in. She nodded and waved before turning to head back to the den. She could hear Murray inside cursing out his favorite team's coach. She paused in the doorway and watched Jones laugh as another player struck out.

"Keep laughing, Probie," Murray grumbled. "I'll get you back in the playoffs."

"You have a serious gambling problem, Murray," Jones said with a shake of his head. "But as long as I'm reaping the benefits, I say live how you wanna live." He had looked back at Murray to deliver this bon mot and spotted Alex in the doorway. "Hey, Crawford. How's the Weasel doing?"

Murray craned his neck to look over his head at her. "Hey, Crawford. You're upside down again."

She put her hand over his face as she walked past and took her regular seat in the recliner. "Don't worry about Weasel," she said. "Worry about the poor nurses assigned to his wing."

Murray shook his head, eyes glued to the TV. "Nah. Nothing to worry about."

Alex arched an eyebrow. "You *have* met Wizell, right?"

"I ain't saying he ain't flirting," Murray said. "Just that it's not going anywhere. These nurses are dressing his wounds, dealing with his burns, peeling off skin if the burns're bad enough." He shook his head again. "Trust me. The second someone does something like that to your body? They're never anything more than a lab jacket to you."

Alex absently touched her bandage through the windbreaker, thinking back to Rachel Tom's invitation. Murray spewed another curse at the TV and said, "Chumps! Every last one of them, their mothers and their fathers, all of 'em, chumps."

"How much?" Alex asked Jones.

"Fifty," Jones smirked.

Murray slapped the arm of his chair and shot to his feet, making both Alex and Jones jump back. He stared at the TV for a few seconds, nostrils flaring, before he turned and stormed out of the den.

"He's steamed," Jones said unnecessarily.

Alex grinned and said, "What about you? You think what he said is true?"

"About what? Chumps?"

"No, doctors. Do you think you could date a doctor who treated you?"

Jones shrugged. "Depends on what they treated me for. Broken arm, some heroic derring-do, yeah, I think I could date someone who put me back together. STD, though. I'd most likely steer clear of the doc who helped me out there."

Alex raised an eyebrow and Jones's eyes widened.

He shifted uncomfortably and hastened to add, "I mean, I would if it ever came up. Hypothetically, right? The whole thing was..." He cleared his throat and said, "Hey, I, uh... you know, never had..."

"Okay, Jones, I know you're pure." Alex said. She stood and headed for the door. She patted him on the shoulder and said, "You have to have sex before you can get an STD."

"Aw, geez," Jones muttered. He stood and followed her from the den. "I'm not a virgin, you know."

"I'll put it in the newsletter," Franklin said, overhearing the last bit as he crossed the bay to his locker.

"Lieutenant, I... Aw, damn it, Crawford!"

Alex laughed as she went into the kitchen. Murray was banging the cabinet doors open and shut without really bothering to search inside. She put one hand on his shoulder and said, "Murray. Sit. Take a deep breath. I'll cook you something. What're you in the mood for?"

"Beef stew?" Leary said from the door. He looked past her at Murray. "What's with the banging around, Godzilla?" His office shared a wall with the kitchen, meaning Murray's tantrum may have interrupted his phone call.

"Sorry, Chief. Bad bet."

Leary winced and shook his head. He moved towards the other end of the table. "I told you not to go with your gut. What's your gut ever gotten you, other than an ulcer?" He patted Murray on the shoulder and took a seat.

Alex went to the cupboard and searched for the cans of beef stew. She had found a red-and-white can and had just removed it when Jones walked in. He saw it in her hand and snatched it away without saying anything. Alex arched an eyebrow at him and said, "Whoa, Probie. Know your boundaries."

"Sorry," he smiled. "But I thought I'd cook tonight. After all, it's my fault Murray's trying to punch through the walls, right?"

"You're damn right," Murray said over his shoulder. He was still pouting, but seemed to have brightened a bit at the knowledge the new guy would be cooking for him.

Alex stepped back, eager to hand off the cooking duties, and took a seat next to the pouting driver. "Where did the engine get off to?"

Leary waved dismissively at the doors. "Some demonstration downtown. They're having pyrotechnics, wanted some firefighters on hand just in case. If we get a call, Engine 8 over in Greensboro will come back us up." He looked around and said, "Where's Holt?"

With Wizell out of commission, a lieutenant named Robert Holt had been pulled in from another company in another town; Alex hadn't paid much attention to those details.

Murray answered, "He's upstairs pumping iron. Said he wanted to check out our set-up."

"Where's the can opener?" Jones asked.

"Hand crank in the drawer by the fridge," Leary said. He returned to the Holt topic. "Set-up? What, like becoming a firefighter is really just an excuse to bulk up while at work?"

"It is for me," Murray said. He rolled up the sleeve of his t-shirt and flexed his bicep.

"Hand crank?" Jones whined when he found the old-fashioned can opener. "What is this, the Dark Ages?"

Leary raised an eyebrow. "I have a penknife on my keychain you could use if you prefer."

Jones grumbled and turned the hand crank over in his hands, trying to figure out how it worked.

Alex slapped her thighs and stood. "Okay, since I was saved from cook duties, you guys want something to drink? I can run across the street."

"Something orange-flavored," Leary said. "Don't care about brand, so long as it's got sugar."

Murray asked for lemonade and Jones made it two. As she passed Jones, she saw him try and fail to hook the hand-crank to the can. She took both can and tool from him, setting the can on the counter and effortlessly attached the opener to the side. With a few quick, strong twists, the top came loose. It was tilted up at a slight angle, allowing her to get her trimmed thumbnail under the edge and lift it up. She handed the can back to Jones and smirked, "Learn to use it. Your life in the kitchen will be much easier."

"All I'm saying is an electric can opener is, like, twenty bucks. Who needs this hassle?"

Murray shook his head. "If you'd been born thirty years ago, wolves would have eaten your ass when you was a baby."

She left the squabbling boys behind and headed to her locker. She took her wallet from her coat and headed out. The store was literally across the street, kitty-corner from the station. She trotted up the hill and looked both ways before she jogged across the street. She walked into the store, greeting the night clerk that she knew by name, and headed for the coolers at the back.

By the time she grabbed all the drinks, going back when she remembered Leary had wanted something orange, two kids had entered. They were both carrying a skateboard under their arms and laughing about the wounds on the taller boy's knees. A girl trailed behind them, obviously bored out of her skull by what the boys were talking about. Alex got a root beer for herself and headed for the front counter to pay.

"You a firefighter?"

She turned and saw the teen girl standing behind her. The skater boys were at the frozen drink machine, unaware their female hanger-on had detoured. Alex was wearing her department t-shirt, so it wasn't a surprise she'd been spotted. "Yeah, I am."

"Cool," the girl said. "So they, like, let women actually hang off the truck and stuff?"

"We stopped hanging off the truck a good while back," Alex said. "The boys started letting us sit up front with them."

The girl nodded absently. "So, you like... sleep with all the guys? That's what I heard, I mean, that you guys all sleep together in the station."

"Well..." Alex said. "We *do* have separate beds. Bunk beds."

"So there's no sex?"

"I can't speak for anyone else," Alex grinned. "But no, nothing happens."

The girl made a half-hearted shrug and said, "That's cool, though. Being a firefighter."

"I think so," Alex grinned. "What's your name?"


"Nice to meet you, Michelle."

From the candy aisle, one of the boys finally realized his girlfriend had wandered. He joined in the conversation, nodding at Alex. "So do you guys have, like, a dog?"

She turned and looked at him. He looked half-baked and was smiling like a moron. He repeated his question and Alex said, "Yeah. We call him Weasel."

"Huh," the kid said, stuttering a laugh. "Cool. Weasel."

Alex paid for her drinks and took her bag. "Nice meeting you, Michelle." The girl half-heartedly waved after her. Alex headed back across the street, careful not to jostle the bag too much. Once, she'd gotten Murray's soda shaken too much and it had sprayed all over everything when he opened it. The resulting spray war had become nearly legendary and, while fun, she didn't want a repeat of it.

She carried the bag into the firehouse, the smells of stew rising from the kitchen area and making her mouth water. She was halfway across the bay when she realized there was a woman's voice among all the chatter. She slowed her progress, confused, and craned her neck to see into the room.

Sitting at the head of the table in the seat previously occupied by Murray, with her back to the door, was Dr. Rachel Tom.

Alex fought the sudden urge to run to her locker and change into something nicer.

To be Continued in Chapter Three

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