Just Bugs, No Bunny
"Excuse me," he asked, trying to get the attention of a reporter on the scene.
One of the talking heads, someone he vaguely recognized from the evening news but couldn't name, was wrapping a microphone cord and around her hand. She looked up at the sound of his voice and said, "I'm sorry, sir, you can't be here."
The arsonist fought the urge to smirk, wondering how many times firefighters had said the exact same thing to her. "I-I live around here," he said. "I saw the fire. I hope no one was hurt..."
The reporter sighed. "They're saying that maybe a firefighter was trapped inside. That's all they're saying right now. Please, I'll have to ask you to step back."
He fought the urge to smile at this news, struggling mightily to keep his expression neutral. "Oh," he managed. "Oh, dear, that is horrible!"
He started to walk away, not getting too close to anyone lest they smell the gasoline stink that clung to him like a second skin. He shoved his hands into his pockets, ducking his head and finally releasing the snicker that had been building up since the trucks had first arrived. He'd done it! A firefighter had gone down!
Looking over his shoulder, he saw the building was a maelstrom of flame; perhaps he'd gone overboard with this one. Between the first fire, which had been too weak, and this one, he needed to find a middle ground.
It would be fine, though... the next fire would be a masterpiece compared to these two. Snickering again, he turned and hurried away from the scene.
They pulled Jones from the rubble a few minutes past six in the morning. His oxygen mask had melted into his skin and his uniform turned a deep charcoal color. The medics loaded him onto a gurney and covering him with a body bag before they removed him from the skeleton of the building. Leary passed Murray and Alex, handing each of them a corner of a sheet. They nodded their understanding and moved a few feet apart.
When the medics carried the gurney from the building, Murray climbed onto the bumper of the engine and lifted his portion of the sheet over his head. Alex did the same on the bumper of the ladder. The reporters who had shown up in full force were stuck scrambling back and forth in an attempt to get a halfway decent shot around the sudden barricade. Once Jones had been loaded into the ambulance, they dropped the sheet and went back to their duty. The building still wasn't safe.
Alex watched the ambulance bounce as it rolled over the TV camera cords and other various pieces of equipment the reporters had left lying around. Several of the talking heads tried to get their stuff out of the way, but the truck wasn't giving them time to clear out. Alex managed a weak smile and picked up her ax, following Murray back into the smoky husk.
Rachel did whatever was needed, since she was there, but she spent most of her time leaning against the doorway of the waiting room and watching the fire coverage on the news. One of the reporters announced that they were bringing the body out, at which point the camera spun back towards the building.
"Oh, what the hell are they thinking?" Rachel muttered. She hated the fact that she was glued to the screen. The reporters were just getting in the way and why? So people like her could sit at home and gawk. She twisted her lips and rubbed the back of her neck.
At that moment, two firefighters stood on the bumpers of the truck nearest to them - Rachel saw that one was the engine and the other was the ladder - and held up a wet, smoke-damaged sheet. She smiled, fighting the urge to applaud. When the sheet was dropped again, the firefighter that had stepped onto the ladder turned and slipped around the edge of the truck.
Rachel felt her breath catch when she spotted the CRAW written in reflective tape over the tail of the jacket. She whispered, "Alex," as she clutched the pendant hanging from her necklace. "Thank God, Alex."
A few minutes later, the reporter back in the studio - the replacement of the one who had been in at 2 AM - broke in. "We have a little more information to offer you at this time. Apparently, the casualty was a probationary firefighter, which means he had only recently graduated the academy."
Rachel had a flash of the man standing at the stove earlier in the evening, ladling stew into a bowl. He had offered her some, could practically still hear him say, "You're sure? There's plenty to go around." She could see his Marine-length hair cut, his thin face and that smile that she was sure had melted hearts all around town. He had been so young! She'd seen young people die; it was a fact of life in the hospital. But he had been so... alive earlier. Just making soup and joking with the guys. The worst part was she couldn't even remember his name.
She looked into the dark waiting room, straightening slightly. The speaker had been a young man - probably the same age as the firefighter - sitting on the couch. He looked concerned. She cleared her throat and said, "Um, yes, sorry, yes?"
"Are you all right? Would... you like me to get a nurse?"
She realized that she was crying, realizing a moment later that she was still wearing her street clothes. "No, that's all right," she said, forcing a smile. "Thank you."
She turned and went back to the nurses' station, resting her hands on the edge of the counter until one of the women there noticed her. "I'm going to go home," she said softly.
"All right, Dr. Tom. Do you want us to give you a call if someone from the fire is sent in?"
"No," she said. "I don't think I'd be the best thing for them right now." She smiled and thanked the nurse before she headed to the elevator.
The corridor branched off right before the elevators, stretching out to either side in short halls. It was a benefit for the more mobile patients, so they could look out the windows. Convalescing patients were walked from their rooms to the windows during their exercises. Even though the view was mostly of a parking lot and the strip mall across the street, everyone still seemed fond of coming down and looking at the evergreens. It was also used by nurses who wanted to have their smoke breaks without going all the way to the ground floor.
As she passed, she spotted Wizell sitting in his wheelchair and staring blankly through the glass. Following his gaze, she saw the weakly rolling black cloud at the edge of town. She started over, thought better of it and stayed where she was. She wondered if he knew; if he had heard the news. He most likely had; hard to believe he hadn't seen the news broadcast of his friends doing their jobs.
She pressed the down button on the elevator and left Wizell to his thoughts.
At the firehouse, Alex headed to the edge of the apparatus bay and turned on the faucet. The truck needed to be hosed down and there was no reason why she shouldn't get it done with as soon as possible. Leary and Franklin were heading for the Chief's office where the unfortunate task of calling Jones's family would be done. She pulled a couple of sponges from the cabinet and went to find the garden hose.
Murray walked over and she automatically handed him a sponge. He took it without comment and turned to look over at the Chief's office.
When she picked up the bucket and carried it over to the truck, Murray said, "Twenty-one, man. Shit."
She knew he was talking about Jones's age. They'd managed to salvage his helmet, the singe-marks contained to the front. She noticed the cross he'd drawn with a marker hadn't been touched and she wanted to take an ax to it. He'd prayed on the way to this fire, the way he did on every call. Lot of good it had done. She motioned at the rig and told Murray, "C'mon. Let's get this done. You want to hang the hose to dry?"
"Sure," he said. He pulled some of the equipment from the truck, setting it aside to be washed. He looked over his shoulder at the chief's office and asked, "Who do y'think they'll put with us?"
She shrugged. "One of the twins, probably."
"You'd like that, huh, Crawford?"
She could tell by the tone of his voice he was kidding, but she shot him a look and said, "Not today, Murray."
He nodded and sprayed the hose at the side of the truck. A wave of soot and dirt immediately began to cascade down the red flank. Alex watched the stream for a moment before she dunked her sponge into the bucket and got to work.
Jones's replacement arrived at ten, two hours before the end of shift. As Murray had predicted, they had sent one of the twins. Alex guessed it was Heather, but there was no real way to tell just by looking... at least not any that she was aware of.
The twins were stationed with Ladder 4, a company on the other side of town, and had become a bit of a legend after an encounter at a fire ground. Then-Chief Goldberg, having never seen either of the Riley twins at a fire, had spotted one of them laying a hose line. A few minutes later, he glanced at the roof and saw what he thought to be the same firefighter assisting in ventilation. Over the course of the fire, Heather and her sister Helen had inadvertently caused the old man more than a bit of confusion.
Afterward, when he found out the truth, he began referring to them as Bugs and Bunny, a reference to the old cartoon where the wabbit played all the positions in a baseball game. The name had stuck and, although it had never been specified, everyone agreed that Heather was Bugs and Helen was Bunny.
Alex and Murray had finished washing the truck and had replaced all of the now-gleaming equipment. The hose was hung up to dry in the hose bed and they were finally taking a few minutes to decompress in the den. Alex was seated so that she could see the front of the bay and kicked Murray's shin when the other woman arrived. "Look who's here."
"Figured she wouldn't come 'til next shift," Murray said.
"Probably just wants to touch base, get her stuff in the locker... save her time getting acclimated."
Murray nodded, watching as she walked into the Chief's office. Her blonde hair was in a ponytail that reached only mid-shoulder. She was wearing a Ladder 4 shirt and navy blue trousers. She had a set of bunkers over one arm, her helmet tucked under the other. Murray raised an eyebrow and said, "Damn. There's a carbon copy of her running around?"
"Down, boy," Alex smiled.
"Hey, you got the doctor yesterday. Can't I call dibs on this one?"
"She's not a drumstick at Thanksgiving dinner, Murray."
He scoffed and shrugged. "All right, all right." The twin had left the office and was carrying her stuff across the bay to the lockers. "Okay, what do you think?" he asked. "Bugs or Bunny?"
Alex tilted her head slightly and spotted something on the other woman's helmet. "My money is on Bugs."
Murray exhaled and watched the woman stow her gear and then said, "All right, then. I'll say she's Bunny. Fifty-fifty odds, right?" He scratched his chin. "Wanna start slow? Say, thirty bucks?"
"No way!" Alex said. "I'm not getting into your gambling net like..." She hesitated, worried that saying his name would shatter the business-as-usual façade they had going. "No bet," she amended.
"Yeah, all right," Murray said.
The woman spotted them and headed over, extending her hand with a smile. "Hi. Heather Riley. You can call me Bugs... Just Bugs, no Bunny."
"Bugs," Alex said, taking the other woman's hand. "I should've made the bet."
Bugs smiled and looked at Murray. "Yeah... I've gotten so used to the betting about me and my sister that I just wrote Bugs on the back of my helmet to avoid confusion."
The same helmet she'd just carried across the apparatus bay. Alex winked at Murray, who was suddenly glad she hadn't taken his bait. "It's nice to meet you," he said, standing and shaking her hand.
"Two women in the same station," Bugs grinned, raising an eyebrow. "Whatever will the old boys club think?"
"No worries," Alex said. "We hardly even think of Murray as a woman anymore."
From his seated position, Murray brought his foot up and kicked her in the ass.
Alex tossed her leather backpack onto the couch and shrugged out of her jacket. She draped it over the back of her recliner as she passed and ran her fingers through her still-wet hair. She'd showered at the station, getting all the soot and grime out of her hair, but she had still smelled of smoke when she climbed into her Jeep at the end of the shift. Stifling a yawn, she stripped down to her underwear, not bothering with pajamas before collapsing on top of her comforter.
Her next shift was in 48 hours and she planned to spend at least half of that unconscious. Her eyes closed as soon as she hit the pillow, her bed seeming to catch her as she fell into it. Just before sleep claimed her, she thought of how lucky she was to not have anything to do for two whole days.
And that's when it hit her.
She rolled onto her back and muttered a curse as she ran back into the living room. She grabbed her jacket off the back of the chair and turned the pockets inside out. No phone. Her backpack had fallen over and spilled across the couch cushions, saving her the trouble of doing it herself. She finally found her cell phone at the bottom of the pile. She turned it on and fumbled with her keys until she found her voice mail in box.
No new messages.
She frowned and checked her watch. She and Rachel had made plans to meet at noon. She was forty-five minutes late, so why no call? She knew the irony of her being offended, but still couldn't bring herself to ignore it. She kicked herself for not getting Rachel's phone number and went back into the bedroom. As she pulled on a blouse and found a pair of jeans in the hamper. As she buttoned the blouse, she tried to think of the best place to intercept the doctor. Not the hospital; she wouldn't have scheduled a date if she had been on duty.
Unfortunately, that was the only place in Rachel Tom's life that she knew about.
She sat on the edge of the bed, distraught, feeling like she'd missed the opportunity of a lifetime. It was silly... some woman she'd spent a grand total of fifteen minutes with over the course of a single day... who cared? There were other women. Theoretically, anyway, there were other women. She groaned and ran a hand through her hair. The one woman in years who had actually made her feel something, the one woman who had made her excited about the prospect of eating a meal across from someone... and she'd missed it.
She stared at the phone and tapped her thumb against the display screen and was shocked into yelping when it began to vibrate in her hand. She kicked herself for being so jumpy and answered it when Murray's cell phone number appeared on the display. "Murray?" she said. "Why... what's up?"
"Hey, Alex, got a minute?"
"Yeah, I suppose. Where are you?"
"Still at the station. The Chief, he... he wanted me to kind of go through Jones's things and... you know..." He trailed off, leaving the unpleasant details to Alex's imagination. It was a fact of life; Jones had died and his replacement would likely need the locker space. Didn't make the process of cleaning it out any more enjoyable. He cleared his throat and moved on. "Anyway, that doctor from last night?" Alex's heart kicked up a notch. "She stopped by, wanted to know if we could give her your phone number. I wasn't sure and..."
"Yes! She... it's all right, Murray. Is she there now?"
"Yeah, want me to put her on?"
After a pause, Rachel's voice came over the line. "Alex?"
"I was just trying to figure out how to get a hold of you!" She paused. She was out of breath, smiling like an idiot, and in danger of making a very big fool out of herself. She cleared her throat and said, "I, uh... thought you were going to call."
"Well, after last night, I..." There was a long pause and Alex thought they'd been disconnected. After a moment, Rachel quietly said, "The man whose phone I'm borrowing is standing right here smiling at me... Um, i-is there someplace we can meet?"
Alex gave her the address of Peter's café and gave her directions. When Murray got the phone back he said, "Hey, Alex. Need a chaperone?"
"Make sure she doesn't get too handsy?"
"Will you take some pictures for me if she *does* get too handsy?"
She snapped the phone shut without bothering to say good-bye again, but she smiled at Murray's sense of humor. One five-minute phone call and here she was, revitalized and cheerful. She gathered her backpack and headed out the door, hoping to get to the café before Rachel did.
Peter had inherited the café when his father retired, a kindly old man who had lovingly referred to Michael as Peter's "spouse." He seemed to accept them as a couple, but Peter had hinted a few times that it had been a long, tough road. When Peter's father recently decided to pack up and move to South Carolina, he had been torn between selling the business and keeping it in the family. He'd only handed over the reins after he'd tasted Peter's cappuccinos and personally tested half of Michael's menu.
Alex sat nervously in the booth next to the front door, fiddling with her coffee cup as she watched the sidewalk. *'How long does it take to get here from the firehouse?'* she wondered. *'Why would Rachel seek me out just to blow me off?'* A few customers passed the threshold of the café, but not so many that Peter couldn't come around the counter and stopped next to her table. "Waiting for someone?"
She smiled nervously.
He gasped and slid into the seat across from her. "Alex has a <i>girl</i>friend!" he grinned. "Who is she? How long as this been going on?"
"I met her yesterday."
"Ooh, she moves fast!"
Alex shrugged and said, "Well, she was the doctor I saw after the first fire..."
He shushed her and moved forward, touching her unburned arm. "Honey, that reminds me... no talk of the fire around Michael. The sirens woke him up last night and we watched the whole horrid thing on the news. He was terrified. Just... so you know. He's fragile right now."
"I didn't know," Alex said. She glanced towards the kitchen door. "Is he all right?"
"He really likes you. Your job scares him a lot. Me too, for that matter."
"Why don't you guys come over some night for dinner? My treat. I'll soothe his nerves."
"He'd really appreciate that. I would, too." He looked over her shoulder and said, "We'll set it up later, all right?"
"Sure," Alex said and turned to follow his gaze. Rachel was standing behind her, looking flushed and smiling brightly. She was looking nervously between Alex and Peter, as if trying to figure out whether to stay or make tracks. "Rachel! Hi! This is..."
Peter shushed her and stood with his arms held out. "This is a man who is just vacating your seat. I'll leave you two ladies alone... unless you'd like something to drink?"
Rachel slid into the seat he'd just vacated and said, "Yes, um... could I get some water?"
"Bottled or tap? We have Clearly Canadian; cherry, blackberry, orange pineapple, peach...?"
"Pineapple would be fantastic, thank you."
He got the bottle out of the cooler and returned, placing it in front of her. He smiled at Alex and said, "If you ladies need anything else, let me know." He went around the counter, as far from their booth as he could get. Alex knew he would do his best not to eavesdrop, but she still dropped her voice a notch.
"I was so relieved when you called."
"I wasn't going to," Rachel said. "I saw everything on the news and I knew you were having..." She swallowed and said, "I just thought that coffee would probably be the furthest thing from your mind today."
Alex shrugged. "It sort of was. I have to confess, I had forgotten all about it until just before you called. But I'm glad to have the excuse to ignore everything that happened this morning, even for a little while."
Rachel took the hint and nodded her understanding. After a beat, she said, "You look exhausted... are you sure you don't want to reschedule this?"
"You know, it's silly, but... I'm afraid if we call off our first date, it'll curse us."
"First date," Rachel repeated with a smile. "Us?"
Alex looked out the window and smiled nervously. "I suck at relationship stuff."
"Eh, you get at least a passing grade."
Alex looked at Rachel's bottle and said, "Tell you what... take a drink of your water." As Rachel uncapped her drink and took a long sip, Alex drank what was left of her cappuccino. "Okay, there. Our date is over. Would you like to walk me home?"
"Are your dates always this short?"
"Only when I'm saving the best for later."
They slid out of the booth and Alex reached for her wallet. Peter gave away his eavesdropping and rushed over, waving her off. "No, honey. First dates are always free in Peter's Café."
"Thanks, Peter," Alex said. As Rachel stood, Alex put her hand in the small of the other woman's back, a gesture she'd done once before and was already finding more and more comfortable. And apparently, she wasn't alone; this time, Rachel didn't tense at all. She guided Rachel out of the café and pointed down the street. "It's just a few blocks this way."
"Few blocks...? My car is right here," Rachel said, indicating a sedan parked at the curb.
"Oh," Alex said. Her face fell as she saw her romantic idea collapsing around her. "I didn't think about your car."
"It's the thought that counts, I think is the saying," Rachel said. "Look, you just got off a shift; you've got a right to be exhausted. On top of that, it was a hellish shift. We should just try it again later."
"Okay. It's a deal... can I have your cell number?"
"Oh, right," Rachel said. She pulled her purse around and dug around inside. She withdrew a pen and pad and wrote her number down. "This is my cell and my house... I don't want another scavenger hunt like today."
Alex nodded. "Yes... and the less exposure you have to Murray, the better."
Rachel laughed and said, "Okay. And I lost yours, so..."
Alex scribbled her home and cell numbers down as well. As she capped the pen, she looked down at her hands and said, "I'm really glad you went to the trouble to find me today. It's been... a really bad morning and..."
"It was entirely a selfish move, trust me," Rachel said softly. She slid her hand across Alex's shoulder and moved in. She pecked Alex's cheek and hesitated, obviously debating whether or not to move to the lips. Before she decided, too much time had passed for it to be spontaneous, so she stepped back. "Want a ride home?"
"I think I'd better walk off that kiss first," Alex said, avoiding Rachel's eyes.
Rachel laughed and said, "Okay. When is your next day off?"
"Tomorrow, actually," Alex said. "Twenty-four on, forty-eight off..."
"Oh, right, right. Well, do you want to..."
Rachel laughed. "Well, then! We'll work out the kinks tomorrow, then?"
Alex nodded. "I'll call you."
"You'd better," Rachel said playfully.
Alex watched Rachel climb into her sedan, waving at her through the windshield as she started the car. When she'd pulled away from the curb, Alex turned and caught movement inside Peter's Café out of the corner of her eye. She turned and saw Peter and Michael both in a window booth, smiling at her through the glass. Peter made a heart shape with his fingers and Michael mimicked a heart pounding against his chest.
Alex gave them another hand gesture, but she only used one finger.
Alex stretched out on her bed again, this time in a pair of boxers and a tank top. She threw an arm over her face to block the early afternoon sun, settled in, and hoped for a good, peaceful sleep. At least for a couple of hours... She had Rachel's phone number safely transferred to the pad by her house phone, so she wouldn't accidentally throw it out or lose it when she dug for change at the store.
The only problem was that every time she closed her eyes, she saw Jones opening that door, saw the flames engulfing him.
He should have been behind her. She should've been the one to open that door. Letting him lead the way had been a show of faith, a reward for his excellent progress. Instead... instead, she had signed his death certificate. It was just like Wizell's accident, only...
She opened her eyes, moving her arm and staring up at the ceiling.
It was *just* like Wizell's accident, except the flame was bigger. She got out of bed and went into the kitchen, searching until she found one of the street maps she'd stocked up on while studying to be a driver. Unfolding it onto the dining room table, she found the sites of the fires and covered them with her finger and thumb. They were just a few blocks from each other.
She sat down, thinking back to Wizell's accident. He had opened the door and the backdraft had knocked him down and burnt him badly. The second fire, less than a day later, had been only a few blocks away... it had been bigger, it had been badder and it had actually killed the firefighter that was caught in it.
Someone was torching these buildings. Worse, they seemed to be traps set to catch reporting firefighters off-guard. She stood up so fast she nearly toppled her chair; she had to call Leary and tell him what she'd learned.
To be continued in Chapter Five
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