Make One Little Ruckus and Suddenly You're on America's Most Wanted
Alex headed into the kitchen, ignoring the nerves that had just started jangling like a five-alarm bell. Leary saw her coming and smirked. Rachel paused and looked over her shoulder. "Alex! They said you were out."
"Yeah," she said nervously as she put the bag of drinks down on the table. She was avoiding the playful grins of her co-workers and trying to focus on forming coherent sentences. "Um... hi."
"Hi," Rachel said.
Jones stepped between the two of them. He fished through the bag and fished for the bottles inside. He pulled them free, flashed a smile at Alex and went back to the stove.
"Probably need some help with the spices, eh, probie?" Murray asked, getting out of his seat and standing at the stove with Jones. Both men stood with their backs to the room, neither of them even bothering to pretend they were working.
Leary also stood, moving around the table. "You guys don't use enough cayenne... let me see if I can find some." He stood next to Murray and joined in the wall of silence.
Alex shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other, very aware of the three men crowded behind her. From the lack of noise coming from their 'preparations,' she knew they were just trying to give the illusion of privacy. She cleared her throat and motioned at the apparatus bay with her head. "Wanna take a walk?"
"Sure," Rachel said.
As she led the doctor out of the kitchen, she looked over her shoulder and said, "The root beer is mine. And save me some of the stew, would ya?"
"We'll have to open another can... at least," Leary said.
"Probie'll have better luck cutting off one of his fingers," Murray chuckled.
Alex joined Rachel in the bay, smiling apologetically like a teenager embarrassed by her family's appearance on the front porch before a date. "Sorry about that," she said, keeping her voice low. She put her hand on the small of Rachel's back and guided her towards the open garage doors. She noticed that Rachel tensed at the touch and was about to pull her hand away when the other woman relaxed. They stepped out into the chilly air, the streetlight on the corner casting a light glow over the driveway.
Rachel nodded at the empty section of the bay. "Was there a fire...?"
"Not yet," Alex said. "The engine is just on hand at some demonstration downtown."
"Oh, okay." She looked into the bay again and said, "So... y-you're not on the engine?"
Alex shook her head. "No, I'm with the ladder."
Rachel smiled, obviously embarrassed. "Okay... uh, I don't..."
Alex grinned. "Not a lot of people know the difference. The engine carries the water supply and a whole bevy of tools like ladders, axes, the fans, stuff like that. The ladder has, as you could guess, the ladder. We go up on the roof for ventilation, we do search-and-rescue inside the building... the engine, all they do is spray water on the fire and grab all the glory."
"Glory hogs," Rachel said.
Alex laughed. "Do you want a tour?"
"No, that's... I just came by to let you know that... um, you don't have to... meet me for drinks or anything if you don't want to."
Alex felt her stomach drop. *'She changed her mind,'* she thought. *'Decided she was just caught up in the moment, is rethinking it, no problem.'* She managed to nod and said, "Well, I guess... we could call it off if you wanted to..."
"No!" Rachel said, putting her hand on Alex's arm. Alex looked down and wondered if she'd just imagined there was a spark from their contact. "I-I didn't mean that. It was just... I ambushed you and I... was thinking that you really couldn't say no without embarrassing me. I just... wanted to say that I wouldn't... I mean, if you still want to go, I'd be thrilled..."
"I still want to go," Alex said, interrupting her.
Rachel looked as if a weight had been lifted from her. "Great. That's... thank you for not... laughing in my face."
Alex smiled. "I'm looking forward to it."
"So I'll... I'll see you then?"
"Count on it."
Rachel shifted her feet and then looked back into the bay. "I'm sorry if I embarrassed you back there..."
"Oh, please," Alex laughed. "*I* apologize for anything these pigs said while I was gone."
"They're sweet. Especially Mr. Murray."
Alex fought the urge to laugh harder. "Yes, he... he is darling."
"Okay, then... I should go. I'll see you tomorrow at noon."
"It's a date," Alex said. She extended her hand as Rachel moved in for a hug. They awkwardly shifted until they were shaking with one hand and embracing with the other. Rachel grinned when they pulled back and Alex said, "Okay... that wasn't weird at all."
Rachel smiled nervously. "Sorry."
"It's okay. We'll figure it out."
She couldn't swear to it in the dim light, but she thought that Rachel blushed. "Okay. Well..."
"Well. Have a nice night."
Alex watched Rachel walk back to her car, waving as the doctor drove past. Once the taillights faded over the rise, she turned and walked back into the bay. She froze in the doorway of the kitchen.
Leary, Murray and Jones had moved the table so they could all sit at the long end facing the door. Each of them had a bowl of stew in front of them, but none were eating; they were too busy smiling at her. Murray was the first to speak, holding his hands out palm-up. "Well?" he said, affecting an effeminate tone. "Dish, girl!"
Alex rolled her eyes and went to the pot. She found a bowl that wasn't too dirty and served herself. She paused at the table long enough to snag her root beer and shook her head. "You guys seriously need to get a life."
They booed her playfully as she walked out of the kitchen with her root beer. She stepped outside and took a seat in the lawn chair Leary had been in earlier. She cracked the top of her drink and set it on the ground next to her. From the kitchen, she could hear loud scratching noises as the guys moved the table back where it belongs. A few minutes later, Leary came outside and leaned against the bay doors.
"Date?" he asked.
She thought for a moment and then nodded.
Alex smirked. "Yep."
"Want the guys to ease up on you?"
"'The guys?'" she asked. "So you were against moving the table?"
"Kicking and screaming," he said, but his smirk gave him away.
"It's all right, Chief. I can take it," she assured him.
He nodded. "Enjoy your stew."
She raised her spoon and saluted him with it as he walked back into the building. She crossed her leg over her knee and watched the sparse traffic flow by the firehouse. Truth be told, she was a little touched by their playfulness. She had joined the academy with a class of four other women. The guys had been dismissive, harsh and misogynistic. It had been torture and it had only slightly lessened when she was assigned to the department.
Slowly but surely, however, she was gaining their respect. They'd seen what she was capable of and, by God, they were starting to trust her. And now, here she was... the night after fighting a fire, sitting outside of her firehouse, a war wound on her arm and eating a hot bowl of stew. And she had a date in the morning.
Things were definitely on the up-swing.
His footsteps echoed through the abandoned corridors, reverberating off the bare walls. The offices had long been empty, all of the storage closets he had checked were crammed full of empty copier paper boxes, long-dead electronics and sundry junk. He had shoved some more loose paper into the cracks, making sure the closets were as full as they could possibly be. Then he poured a small mason jar of gasoline over the mess and closed the door. The fumes would build up in the cramped space and he'd get an even bigger bang for his buck.
He carried seven more jars in his tote bag, protected from banging against each other by fluffy towels. The fumes were bad, but he'd gotten used to them a long time ago. Hardly even noticed them anymore, but the headaches he got afterward told him that his body still noticed. He tried to move fast and he wore a white rag around his nose and mouth, but the headaches still came. An unfortunate by-product of his mission, one that he felt he could easily deal with.
Opening the stairwell door, he walked to the edge of the landing and peered down. The stairs were illuminated by the moon, ghostly white against the darkness of the stairwell. It looked like they circled down into Hell. He poured another mason jar down the stairs, watching as the gasoline seemed to jump from step to step, splashing out to either side as if thankful to be free of its glass prison.
He was humming a song, something by Bruce Springsteen, and tried to remember the name of the tune. The title escaped him, as did the lyrics, so he continued humming. He was sure it was something about fire. Leaving the stairwell, he walked back the way he'd come. Gas fumes assaulted him from all sides, from the bag on his side, from the closets he'd already rigged... It smelled like ambrosia to him, but he knew his body would rebel later. At the end of the hallway, he knelt and carefully spilled another pool beneath the windowsill.
One floor down, two to go. He'd used three jars here, which left him only five for the other two floors. He'd have to scrimp on one of them... most likely the top-most floor. Unless... if the bottom and top floors were both inflamed, there was a chance the second floor would be engulfed with them. He regretted not thinking of that before he wasted three jars on the second floor, but no use crying over spilt gas.
He threw open the stairwell door and, ignoring the fumes, rushed up the stairs to the topmost level.
Alex lay down in the bottom bunk, still wearing her t-shirt but stripped to her boxers below the waist. Her bunking pants were pooled next to her bed, her boots standing up beneath them. Should the alarm go off, all she needed to do was swing her legs over the edge and step into them, yanking the pants up and hooking the suspenders on her shoulders. Easy as pie, took her about three seconds to do it.
The lights were out, save for the main lights in the apparatus bay. The engine had returned around ten and the guys who weren't sleeping around her were watching something in the den. Knowing Captain Sawyer, it was probably a porno.
Murray was on the bed above hers, snoring loud enough to keep her awake and pondering the struts holding his mattress up. She had one arm tucked behind her head, the other draped across her stomach. All she could think about was her date with Rachel the next day. In - she checked her watch and did the math - eleven hours, they would be sitting together and having coffee.
It had been ages since she had been on a date. Her shifts didn't exactly preclude a social life, but it didn't exactly help, either. Her last date had been with a police officer named Tania. Fifteen minutes into the date, Tania had basically insulted every angle of firefighting she could think of. Firefighters were, in Tania's opinion, lazy and shiftless, being paid a king's ransom to sit around the firehouse, watch TV, play pool and occasionally get a little soot on their faces. "My job," she's said, eyes locked firmly down her nose, "a *real* job... people *shoot* at me."
Alex's opinion was that people would shoot at Tania even if she was a dentist.
She rolled onto her side and saw Jones sprawled in the next bunk, hand covering his face. He had yet to get used to sleeping in the same room as a bunch of other people, especially people as loud as Murray.
She closed her eyes, finally about to drift off, when the alarm began to sound.
Captain Franklin, who had the night watch, spoke over the intercom: "Ladder, Engine, Aid; respond to warehouse fire, three-three-one-four Pine, fully involved, Class-B." He repeated the message one more time and, by the time he finished, Alex was following Murray across the apparatus bay.
Rachel was curled in the corner of her couch, reading a few pages before slipping into bed for the night. She'd always been a night owl, something that had proved life-saving in her residency, and seldom climbed into bed before three. Tonight, however, she was having more than a little trouble concentrating.
She kept reading the same paragraph, trying to absorb the action on the page and finding herself unable to focus. Finally, she slipped the bookmark in and put the book on her lap. All she could think about was her upcoming date with Alex. A firefighter. She grinned and took off her reading glasses, checking her watch as she reached for the remote. She was certain there was something on TV Land she could lose herself in for half an hour.
The TV came to life, filling the living room with pale blue light. She was about to turn on the DirecTV when she realized what she was watching.
At first, she'd thought the local news was rerunning its eleven o'clock broadcast. Then, she spotted the little "LIVE!" banner in the bottom right corner, next to the address. 3314 Pine Street, which was in the warehouse district.
"...continues to blaze out of control. Two firefighting companies are on-hand trying to battle this inferno, but they seem to be making absolutely no headway against this thing." She watched in dull, uncomprehending horror as a man in full bunkers swept past the reporter on the ground. The reporter caught up with him. "Sir, excuse me... excuse me, Sir?"
The chiseled, aged-but-not-old face of Chief John Leary turned towards the camera, teeth bared, eyes flashing with anger. His short white hair was standing on end, obviously the result of removing the helmet he was carrying under his arm. Rachel saw only the smiling man blowing on a spoonful of fresh beef stew, telling her that Alex would 'be back in just a jiffy.' He snapped something that the reporter's microphone didn't pick up and headed back towards the building. The reporter stammered something about how the Chief was 'obviously very busy' and promised to 'get a statement later.'
'Right,' Rachel thought.
The TV crew cut back to the studio, where a harried looking anchor was shifting papers on his desk. He obviously wasn't used to being on the air this late and his discomfort was extremely evident. He looked up at the camera, probably making sure he was still on, and said, "If you're just joining us, we're continuing coverage of a fire that was first reported around 1:30 this morning. Since our crew has been on the ground, the fire team has managed to keep the fire from spreading to surrounding buildings..."
Rachel was busy watching the picture-in-picture shot of the fire. If Leary was on the grounds, it stood to reason that Alex was hard at work as well. The second fire in one shift... she honestly didn't know the odds, but it couldn't be all that common, could it? She was scanning the dark background - it was hard to tell one silhouette from another - and trying to read the reflective tape on the back of the firefighters' jackets as they sped back and forth.
"We're getting word now," this from the reporter on the scene, "that a firefighter may - I repeat, *may* be trapped inside the building. We don't have many details at the moment, but as soon as we can confirm anything..."
Rachel refused to believe what she was hearing. Her mind taunted her, assuring her that it was definitely Alex. Alex had come into her life only to be snatched away in a blaze of fire in the middle of the night. Isn't that always the way? Fate poked her in the side, laughing when she jumped. She stood up, halfway decided on changing into street clothes and heading to the hospital. She wanted to go, she wanted to stay and hear the rest of the news, she wanted to scream at the reporter to go away and let the firefighters do their damn jobs.
She dropped back onto the couch and hugged her knees to her chest, staring at the television and hoping for good news.
Alex Crawford laid on her belly, hand against the wall, the world in front of her a screaming swirl of yellows and blacks and grays. There was a bell ringing in her ear, the oxygen tank's five-minute warning siren mixed with the wail of a motionless PASS device somewhere in front of her. The fire was roaring above her; the screaming was coming from inside her own mask.
Fingers wrapped around the collar of her bunking coat and she felt herself lifted bodily off the floor. Someone was half-dragging, half-carrying her backwards the way she'd come in. Once they passed through the front door, the cold air hit her like a wave and she lost her oxygen, collapsing in a heap on the dirt. The person who'd saved her picked her up again, letting her walk this time as he moved her towards the engine. "You all right?" he asked, helping her pull her mask off. "Where's your partner?"
She didn't recognize the man standing in front of her; he was from the Greensboro station and had responded to the same call. "He's in there," Alex managed, coughing a bit as she watched the doorway dissolve into a wall of flame. "Oh, my God, he's still in there."
Rachel had her eyes closed, fists pressed against her forehead when she heard it.
The reporter was giving another recap of the situation, turning to indicate the three-story inferno behind him. He'd just paused to take a breath when there was an ear-piercing scream. A woman's scream.
Rachel's heart jumped and she opened her eyes, frantically searching the background for signs of the woman she'd met that morning. Nothing. Damn it, nothing! She couldn't see anything in the dark, the smoke and with the idiot reporter standing in her way. She stood up and turned off the TV, the sudden darkness causing her a moment's blindness as she swept her hand across the coffee table for her car keys. She wasn't going to just sit around; she couldn't.
They would appreciate the extra hands at work, anyway.
When she arrived, the emergency room was astoundingly serene. She headed for the elevators, looking around for signs she had missed the commotion, but everything seemed business as usual.
She rode the elevator to the third floor, where the real drama was happening. Wizell was in a wheelchair, his bandaged head swiveling back and forth to look at whichever nurse happened to be nearby and speaking at the moment. "I do not care. I am going down to that building and..."
"You're staying right where you are, Mr. Wizell," Rachel snapped as she stormed onto the floor. Despite the panic that had propelled her the entire way to the hospital, she felt a kind of relief. Here, finally, was a problem she could deal with head-on. Wizell snapped his mouth shut, turning his wide eyes on her.
"D-Dr. Tom," one of the night nurses said. Her brow creased in confusion, but she didn't dare question her presence. She had, after all, just cowed the most belligerent patient on the floor.
Rachel stood in front of Wizell's chair and glared down at him. "You will go right back to your room, get back in bed and you *will* calm yourself. Am I understood?"
"Yes, ma'am," he said meekly.
Rachel exhaled. "Good." She looked at one of the night nurses as said, "Rebecca. Please escort Mr. Wizell back to his room. And make sure the restraints are nice and secure just in case we have to use them."
"I'll be good, I promise," Wizell sighed, holding up his hands in surrender. "Geez, make one little ruckus and suddenly you're on America's Most Wanted."
"What are you doing here so late, Dr. Tom?" the remaining nurse asked.
Rachel held up her hand, watching until Wizell was wheeled back into his room. She guided the nurse over to the desk, keeping her voice hushed. "Has he been watching much of the news?"
"Just the first little bit. He started his great escape right afterward, so he didn't get a chance to see any developments. None of us did. Is it bad?"
"The fire is out of control from the looks of it... His company may have lost someone."
Rachel shushed her and said, "I'm here just in case we get a sudden burst of admissions. Couldn't hurt to have an extra set of hands."
"Right, of course, Doctor. If it does get crazy, I'll get on my knees and worship your foresight."
"Well, that probably won't be necessary," Rachel said. She tried to cover her fear with a smile as she took off her coat. "I do, however, accept cash gifts."
Alex sat in the back of the medic truck for the second time in one day, watching as the other firefighters doused the building. The fire was burning itself out; all they were doing for the moment was slowing its advance on the neighboring buildings. She couldn't believe the similarities to the afternoon's fire. It was another warehouse, this one three stories tall with offices on the upper two levels. She and her partner had gone in looking for squatters and had again found no one.
Instead, another door had opened on a fireball. It was still burned into Alex's vision. That, and the image of a helmet engulfed in bright yellow flame.
The bumper of the truck sagged and she blinked herself back to the present, focusing on Leary's haggard face. He sat across from her and put his hand on her shoulder. "What happened in there?" he asked softly.
"He's gone, sir," Alex managed. "Right in front of me. He..." She bit her lip and shook her head. "He disappeared. No one could have survived it."
Leary squeezed her shoulder just once and pulled his hand back. He turned to look out of the open doors at the smoldering building. "When the fire dies down, we're going in and we're going to pull him out. We will find him, Crawford. Got that?"
"His PASS device..."
"Ringing loud and clear, sir," she said. She turned her head back to the building. The PASS device hooked on their jackets signaled when the wearer was immobile for a certain length of time. No one liked to admit that its primary job was to find corpses. Over the calls of other firefighters, over the sirens that were still blaring and all the horrendous noise caused by the media circus, she swore she could still hear it ringing. A small, monotonous tone calling for them to come and find it. "Can you hear it, too?" she asked.
Leary was quiet for a minute, obviously trying to drown out the ambient noises. "Yeah," he finally said. "I can hear it."
He sat with her for a long time, watching out the back of the medic truck as their team and Greensboro's guys drowned the fire out. "Gas," she muttered. "I smelled gas in there. Really strongly."
"Yeah. This was set."
"Bastards," she spit.
By the time the fire had been pretty much contained, the sun was starting to color the sky at the edge of town. Leary helped Alex out of the truck and stood aside as she pulled her gear back on. The surface objective was to overhaul the building, clear out all the flammable materials and snuff out any remaining heat pockets that could rekindle the blaze. But the true objective was to find their missing firefighter.
Somewhere under all this garbage, Alfred Jones was waiting to be found and Ladder 12 would not go home without him.
To be continued in Chapter Four
Return to the Academy