By Geonn Cannon
Peaches and Cream, Baby
Deputy Chief Hawkes had informed her that Leary had already gone home, leaving the house in his very capable hands. Alex had hesitated, not sure whether or not to tell him what she'd learned. If it was true, then they needed to have all the information as soon as possible. But if she was just being paranoid... if it turned out that she was just seeing conspiracies around every corner, she'd prefer if it stayed between her and the Chief. After all, Leary had been at both of the fires. Hawkes had never even met Jones, as far as she knew...
She told Hawkes that she would call back later and to let Leary know she needed to talk to him.
After hanging up, she went to bed and stretched out on top of the covers. She stared at the ceiling, half hoping for sleep and half dreading the nightmares that were sure to come.
She and Jones were crawling down the corridor, a hose line dragging the ground between them. They reached a bank of doors and Alex slid her hand up the wall. She could feel the heat even through her glove and slapped the back of Jones's leg. "Keep moving!"
He gave her the okay sign over his shoulder, half-lost in the cloud of smoke. He continued crawling and she took up the slack of the hose.
It was a fully involved fire, which meant others outside were already applying streams to the open windows. Alex looked up at the ceiling as they rounded a corner, watching the smoke. It had seemed wrong the first time, now it was even worse. It was like a giant, flaming sign that said "Turn Back Now." She ignored it now as she had the first time and followed Jones deeper into the building.
She had seen what he was doing wrong the first time and had shouted at him. But even in her dream, it was already too late. She still saw sheets of smoke flowing into the cracks around the door as if the room was alive and taking a deep breath. And the exhale would be the envy of every fire-breathing dragon since King Arthur's day.
Jones knelt in front of the door, either not hearing her or just ignoring her and reached up. She remembered cursing and grabbing the leg of his bunkers, trying to pull him back as he twisted the knob in his hand.
She pulled her hand back at the last moment, right before the door opened and Jones was engulfed. The wave of flame looked so *wrong,* so unreal...! Instead of exhaling, as she had the first time, she inhaled to scream. (Where the hell was her mask?) The flames followed the oxygen and by the time she realized what she'd done, it was too late. Her lungs had become superheated, fried and useless as she gasped uselessly for air. Her throat now burnt, her lungs twin lumps of charcoal, her entire insides feeling like she had swallowed a match.
And just before she burst into flames, she jerked awake in bed, breathing deep and hard with her healthy lungs. She had screamed instead of breathed. She had survived, Jones was dead. Her face and pillow were wet. She brushed off her cheeks and slipped out of bed on shaky legs. She stood for a moment, making sure her knees would support her, and went to the shower.
She turned the cool water as high as it would go, stripped out of her underwear and unwound the dressing on her arm. She got into the stall and stood motionless under the spray. Goosebumps rose on her flesh, her hair slicked back against her skull as she simply stood there and willed herself to become a block of ice. After a few moments, when her hands and knees were shaking with the freezing temperature, she finally turned on the hot water and soaped up.
She couldn't smell the smoke anymore, but that didn't mean the odor was gone. One of her ex-girlfriends had broken up with her because she "couldn't be with someone who smoked, so how could she sleep next to someone who reeked of the stuff?"
When she finally felt clean, she shut off the shower. She toweled off, redressed her burn and put on a pair of fire department sweats. The apartment felt a little too warm after her freezing cold shower. She padded barefoot to the window and pushed it open to let in some fresh air. Her apartment was a spartan one-bedroom over a pawn shop and a Korean hairdresser. She had a few neighbors, but they were private and never lasted very long. It was nothing to do with her and everything to do with the kids who were at that moment closing a deal down on the corner. Her longest-lasting neighbor was a sweet old man who claimed his name was Mr. Round and that his rotund waist was just a coincidence.
Down in the street, someone was screaming for someone else named Michelle to unlock the car door. The screech of tires immediately thereafter hinted that maybe Michelle had decided to leave the door locked. She watched as a pair of teenaged kids on the corner exchanged a very complicated hand gesture and then went their separate ways. A limping dog exited the alley across the street, pausing to push his muzzle around an overflowing trash can before lopping down the street and disappearing into the darkness.
She loved the neighborhood, loved Mr. and Mrs. Ki-hyun who ran the hairdresser shop downstairs. She hated what was happening to it - the car theft, the broken windows and the graffiti on every surface - but what could she do? Call the police and give them another paper to shuffle at the end of the day? She sighed and moved away from the window. She had enough worries; she could put the world directly outside her window out of her mind for the day.
It was almost seven, the sun already set and her apartment was filled with shadows. She stumbled over her backpack and kicked it out of her way as she wandered towards the kitchen. She turned on the light over the stove and caught a glimpse of the map still unfolded on the dining room table. She prayed she was wrong; someone setting fires to kill firefighters... it made her nauseated just thinking about someone sick enough to do it.
She carried her water into the living room and sat on the couch in the dark. She put her feet up and closed her eyes. She hated waking up so late; it threw off her internal clock. In a few hours, it would be bedtime. She could already see herself, up at two in the morning, watching some 80s sitcom on Nick-at-Nite. The past few weeks, it had been "Family Ties," so she was hoping for a bit of variety tonight. Maybe Dick Van Dyke or one of Bob Newhart's shows.
She loved watching those old shows; just watching the theme song reminded her of being nestled under her Dad's arm, smelling his cigar smoke, laughing because he was laughing. She wanted someone to curl up next to her during the trips down memory lane, but so far no one she'd gone out with could get past the fact that the shows were so old. Nick-At-Nite and TV Land were wastes of cable television, as far as they were concerned. Alex, on the other hand, couldn't imagine Bob Newhart's staccato, stuttering delivery ever becoming considered passť. He still killed her each and every time.
The phone rang and she grumbled, picking up a cushion off the couch and covering her face with it. "Shut up and leave me alone," she groaned. After a moment, the fourth ring was silenced and her voice issued from the answering machine: "This is Alex... Go for it."
There was a beep and then, "Alex! Alex! Alex! Alex! Alex!"
She tossed the pillow away and grabbed the phone on the ninth "Alex!" and shut off the machine. "Weasel!"
She grinned. "How are you doing?"
"I'm in a hospital bed with a catheter in a very uncomfortable position. The nurse that I spent half the shift working on just went off-duty so I have to start all over with the new one and the food here sucks."
She sat back and said, "But other than that?"
"Peaches and cream, baby. The docs want to keep me another day... claim that I have some kind of infection. They just want to keep the ol' Weasel around a little longer. This place is Dullsville, so I really don't blame them for lying to keep me here."
"How dare they?" Alex said, feigning indignation. "You're *our* entertainment!"
He laughed and said, "How about you, girl? Your wrist all right?"
She looked at the wrist she'd burned the day before and worked it back and forth, watching the bandage wrinkle and twist but feeling nothing too bad below. "It's healing nicely, I think. No loss of movement."
"Good," he said. "Hate to think you were permanently injured trying to save my sorry ass."
Jones's face flashed in front of her, along with the memory of being lifted bodily from the corridor and carried out. She didn't even know who it was, who had saved her life. She knew that he was a Greensboro firefighter, but she hadn't bothered to learn his name. "I would've stayed," she said softly. "To save Jones. Someone picked me up, carried me out of there..."
"From what I've heard, it was a flashover. That Greensboro guy shouldn't even have been in there, but if he hadn't... you know as well as I do that if you had stayed another ten... hell, if you'd stayed another *two* seconds you would've roasted alongside Jones. They found his body, kid. Wasn't nothing you could've done differently. You think Jones would've wanted someone to die alongside him?"
"We were partners. He was a probie. If anyone was supposed to die..."
"No one is *supposed* to die. Haven't we taught you anything?" He sighed and said, "We have a dumbass job where we run into a fire and put it out. Up until, what, fifteen or twenty years ago firemen didn't even wear *masks* into fires. Some people think firefighters have a death wish and a lot of times, I can't find a way to disagree with 'em. Alex..."
"Jones shouldn't have been in front of me. I should've been leading the way and..."
"And nothing. You could've gone in first. You could've strapped his bunkers on for him, too. Helped him aim when he went potty. Jones was twenty-one years old. He was a little green, sure. But he was a damned good firefighter. You should feel proud that you gave him a chance to lead the hose."
"He *died,*" Alex repeated. "It was his first time leading and--"
"He lost the lotto, kid. Could've just as easily been me. He might've died on his second entry or his fifth or his ten-thousandth. No use second-guessing, no point in playing what-might-have-been. What happened is what happened and we've got to deal with that."
Alex took a deep breath, looking out her window. She could see the top of next door's pawn shop glowing brightly, flashing in random intervals. After a moment, she said, "Thanks, Eric."
"No problem, Alex. I spent about six hours this morning staring out the window coming to the same conclusion. Thought I'd... I don't know, share my wisdom."
"Well, bits of wisdom so rare for me that I had to tell *somebody.* And no one else at the firehouse takes my calls anymore."
She smiled again, glancing towards the TV. Bob Newhart was talking with Marcia Wallace. "Thanks, Wizell. It's appreciated. Have there been any more fires today?"
"None I've heard of. Heard sirens earlier, probably just an aid call since there wasn't any smoke I could see."
She nodded. "Here's hoping."
After a moment, he said, "Alex, can I ask you a question?"
"You don't even feel a *little* guilty for when I got burnt?"
She rolled her eyes and laughed. "No, I don't feel any guilt whatsoever for that."
He sighed wearily into the phone and said, "Oh! Oh, nurse, hurry! My poor little heart is breaking! Oh, no, nurse!!"
Alex laughed and touched her face, surprised to find it dry. "Weasel... I'm glad you're... I'm glad you made it."
"And I'm glad you weren't hurt worse than you were. All us guys, we... you're our sister, you know?"
She found herself insanely touched by that sentiment; when she'd first signed on, she had gotten the cold shoulder from everyone. She had her own bathroom and some other women in a neighboring firehouse had started a petition to get separate lockers, too. Alex had passed on signing, instead stringing up a sheet to block her corner locker from the rest of the room. After that, the guys started to realize she didn't expect or want special treatment just because of her gender. When Murray had instigated a water war with her, she knew they were coming around. But this... "Sister." She smiled at the phone and said, "Thanks, Eric."
"Okay, I gotta go... the redhead is coming back and I want her to think I'm at death's door. They tend to play fast and loose with the sponge baths when they think you're gonna die."
"Just make sure they don't shave anything."
He was quiet for a moment and then sheepishly asked, "W-what would they... they shave?"
She laughed and said good-bye, hanging up on him and stretching out on the couch again. A five-minute phone call from Weasel and, all of a sudden, she didn't feel half as bad about everything. She was alive, barely injured, she had a date with a beautiful woman in twenty-four hours and Bob Newhart was on TV. What was there to complain about?
He had the plans laid out in front of him, the perfect spots for his presentation marked. The fire would look small, easy to extinguish... but the hot spots. They would prove most deadly if the firefighters weren't extremely careful. And they had no reason to be cautious. He guesstimated where the fire engine would park, figuring what the collapse zone would be. What was it, one-and-a-half times the height of the building? He wasn't sure... he figured two times, just to be on the safe side.
The news was replaying their late-night footage of the fire and he paused, riveted by the coverage of his handiwork. He drummed his fingertips on the edge of the table as they pulled the body out, cursing the damn firemen who'd held a sheet up to block the shot. Way to ruin the moment. He sighed and moved closer to the TV, getting a closer look at them. The big one's jacket said Murray. The other one...
CRAW... Craw-what? Crawdad?
No, Crawford. Alexandra Crawford. They had talked about her earlier in the day, saying that she'd been 'inches away from death herself.' Apparently, she had been on her hands and knees behind the male firefighter, escaping death only because of the order in which they'd gone into the building. Irony. He was a huge fan of it. He grinned. "Alexandra Crawford," he said quietly. "I promise to aim for you next time."
When the news moved on to other local news, he returned to his table and sat down, arranging his toys. He put a toy fire truck on the plans, wondering how tall the ladder really was. It would have to reach the roof, of course, so they could ventilate.
The roof... He checked the information on the building and smiled. The rafters. The firefighters would be very careful when cutting ventilation. They would be certain not to cut any rafters. But if the rafters were already severed... well, then, that would make for a very interesting chain reaction, wouldn't it?
He fought the urge to laugh and began to outline his new plan.
"Ki-hyun Hair and Nails," the high-pitched, female voice crackled. "How I help you?"
"Hey, Moon, it's Alex."
"Alex! How nice of you to call!"
Alex smiled at how much Moon's accent cleared up when she realized she was talking to a friend; the way she explained it, people had an expectation of what a Korean hairdresser should sound like. Why should she be the one to disappoint them? "I... may need your services."
Moon half-gasped, half-groaned into the phone. "That mop you call hair? Shave it all off, say you're a boy until it starts to grow out some. We'll start from scratch."
"Hey, come on," Alex said, bending down and looking at her reflection in the microwave door. "It's not *that* bad." And it was much better than tying her hair into pigtails on the way to a fire. It was easier to just cut it short and ignore it. "I... h-have a date tomorrow."
Another sound from Moon, this time half-laughter and half-shriek. "Ooh, Alex finally found someone who meets all the requirements? Wonders never cease! And if your hair is 'not that bad,' why're you calling me before a big date to make you look good?"
"Good?" Alex asked, surprised.
"Marvelous, dear, I meant to say marvelous. Sorry, I forgot who I was for a minute. Won't happen again. Now, you're off all day tomorrow, so all day is the window, yes?"
"Any time tomorrow, yeah. Probably should be early..."
There was a shuffling of papers and then Moon said, "Okay, and when are you meeting this big, life-changing, soul mate of a person?"
"Tomorrow night... we haven't set a time yet."
"Tomorrow. I can get you in at four in the afternoon. With your disaster of a hairstyle - if I may take liberty to call it that - it'll take about an hour."
Alex nodded and made a note. "Okay. Sounds perfect."
Her voice dropping into a teasing cadence, Moon asked, "And you have a nice dress for the date, yes?"
She rolled her eyes. "Moon, I'm wearing slacks."
Moon grunted. "Such a lady..."
Alex laughed. "I'll see you tomorrow, Moon."
"Four o'clock! Don't be late! I'm going to need every second of it. Oh, the horrors I will be facing tomorrow... "
"Good-bye, Moon. Say hello to your husband for me."
"Kim will be here tomorrow. He misses you!"
"I'll be sure and bring him a tuna sandwich."
Moon gasped and said, "Trollop! Home-wrecker! I'm hanging up on you!"
The call was disconnected and Alex laughed, shaking her head. Nothing like a conversation with Moon to make her laugh. She hung up and looked at her reflection again and plucked at a few errant strands. "It's not *that* bad," she repeated as she grabbed a beer.
Alex spent most of the night channel surfing, watching a few episodes of "Bob Newhart" and "Cheers" on TV Land, and waking at eleven the next morning. She dressed in her sweats and headed out, parking a few extra blocks from her jogging trail to make up for missing the day before. She had her iPod playing, but was paying more attention to the world around her than normal.
Two fires in one twenty-four hour period... it couldn't be a coincidence. The only explanation was that Shepherd had a firebug. The idea sickened her and made her much more aware of the people around her. The thought of someone intentionally setting fires made her want to hunt the guy down and force him to inhale several lungs full of smoke. Serve him right.
Of course, she thought, watching a couple of people light up cigarettes near the pond, some people might not find that to be a very painful torture. She shook her head as she followed the trail into the woods, checking her time and smiling at the result.
Leary still hadn't returned her call, but she wasn't surprised. He was a family man, with a wife and a young daughter, and very seldom answered work-related calls on his days off. It was all right; they'd gone a whole day without a second fire. Maybe the guy had been scared off by how big the second one had gotten. Her heart told her that wasn't true; these guys *liked* the big booms and they got off on the fires that killed someone. They were freaks who thrived on destruction.
She remembered once, when she was still a probie herself, when they had all been out drinking at a local pub. Murray and Franklin had headed out early and spotted a kid playing with a firecracker in the alley. She wasn't exactly sure what had transpired afterward, but Leary had assured her that the kid would never even see another match without twitching.
Maybe when she became a chief she'd force them to tell her.
As she was heading for the cool-down portion of her jog, she realized her cell phone was vibrating against her hip. She slowed, checking the readout - Unknown Name - before she yanked the earplugs out and answered the phone. "Alex Crawford," she said.
"Um... Alex? Rachel Tom."
"Rachel, hi!" she said. She stopped completely and bent forward, resting her free hand on one knee.
"Am I... interrupting something?"
Alex realized then that she was panting into the mouthpiece like some late-night pervert. "Sorry, uh, you caught me while I was jogging. I've been thinking about where we should go tonight."
"Oh? Do tell."
"There's a place not far from the firehouse... it's..." She swallowed and shrugged. "Well, it's a theme restaurant."
Rachel laughed and Alex wondered how to save that sound as her ring tone. "It wouldn't happen to be a firefighter theme, would it?"
"Well, it just so happens..."
Rachel laughed again.
"A priest, a rabbi and a snake walked into a bar..."
"Wait, what?" Rachel asked, sounding confused.
"Nothing. I just wanted to hear you laugh again." She blushed at how corny it sounded, but it seemed to work.
"Fresh," Rachel accused. "Okay, I'll meet you at... uh..."
Alex grinned. No one outside of the department could remember the name of the place. "It's called Vollie's."
"Mm-hmm," Rachel said. "Maybe over dinner you can explain to me why it's called that. Seven all right with you?"
"Yeah, seven would be wonderful. Do... do you need me to pick you up, or..."
"That would be wonderful. Do you know Spring Creek Apartments?" Alex didn't so Rachel gave her directions. "I'm in Apartment 4-B. I'm looking forward to it."
"Same here. See you then."
She hung up and was about to hook the phone back onto her waistband when a thought struck her. She opened the phone again and dialed the police station, moving from one foot to the other as she waited for the dispatcher to answer. "Shepherd Police Department, this is Nancy, how may I direct your call?"
"Hey, Nancy, this is Alex Crawford..."
"Listen, is Bill Von Elm around?" Von Elm was the fire marshal for Shepherd and would most likely have already snooped around both sites at least a little.
Nancy checked and came back quickly. "I think he just headed out to look at one of your fires from yesterday." A pause. "Were you at either of those?"
"Both, actually," Alex said, leaving out the part about being with both of the firefighters who'd been injured.
"Oh, how awful!"
"It's the job," she said, her mood darkening a bit. "Listen, Nancy, just let Bill know I'm looking for him. It's not urgent, but..."
"I understand. I'll let him know, hon."
Alex thanked her and finally stuck the phone back on her waistband. She looked down the path, seemingly a few miles in the distance. As fast as her heart had been racing during the conversation with Rachel, she decided maybe she didn't need to run the rest of the way. The thought of Rachel banished the unpleasant thoughts Nancy had brought forth and, smiling, Alex started to walk the path.
He couldn't very well contract anyone to do it for him, so he was forced to take matters into his own hands. His neighbor had a reciprocating saw that would be perfect. He'd looked forever, finally locating the tool in a box marked "sawzall." Though he'd seen it in action, it had taken him about half an hour to figure out how to work the damn thing properly. He could have asked his neighbor, but then the neighbor would know he'd taken it.
Eventually, he'd figured out how to operate the tool and looked up at his handiwork. The rafters were sagging mightily, but the ceiling around them seemed all right. The problem would come when the firefighters moved across it to cut their ventilation. Come to think of it, they probably used a sawzall for that, too. Poetic justice, he thought.
He put the tool back in the box the way he'd found it, hoping that he would get away without the idiot next door asking questions.
That done, he gathered the rest of his tools. He had a lot of work to do before the building was ready for the fire to start. It would take a long time, he was dismayed to admit, but perfection was better than rushing through and ending up with an injured firefighter like the first time.
He was still kicking himself about that. They interviewed the survivor on the news, made him out to be some kind of hero. *'All he did,'* the arsonist thought, *'was stay alive.'* And what was he doing with that life? Running around playing grab-ass with the nurses, calling himself "Weasel." What the hell kind of name was that for a grown man? Honestly... he regretted that the self-proclaimed Weasel had survived.
All in good time, he figured, kneeling down to set the first trap in this building. Given time, perhaps Weasel would return to work. Then he would have a personal target to shoot at. That would be fun. It was nice to have an alternative if his current approach ever got boring.
As he spilled gasoline down the stairs, he looked at the abandoned building around him. "You were magnificent in your prime," he muttered, feeling a bit sad about ending this building's life. "You've been forgotten, but don't you worry." He watched the gas flow down into the darkness. "You're going to go out in a blaze of glory. No one will be able to ignore you after tonight."
To be continued in Chapter Six
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