Incendiary

By Geonn Cannon

neil_j_miser@yahoo.com

Chapter Eight,

Your Brain Damage is Kicking In

The rest of the day, Alex wandered the firehouse going through the motions and trying her best to ignore the feeling of walking on air that she'd had since waking up that morning. Every thought ran back towards Rachel, every comment reminded her of something Rachel had said or done the night before. When she wasn't pining for Rachel, she was trying to remember the exact tone of her laugh or the way the skin around her eyes wrinkled when she smiled.

When she wasn't doing that, she was kicking herself for acting like a complete and utter high school kid.

Other than the gas leak, they hadn't had a call the entire shift. When they returned, Leary reiterated his radio speech, letting them know that there were concerns about the safety of fires, letting everyone know they should be on their toes for the next couple of calls. Holt had merely grunted and headed upstairs, probably upset that a call had interrupted his workout.

Everyone else was trying to ignore the fact that Jones's funeral was set to coincide with their end of their shift. His mother had worked out the schedule with Chief Leary to be certain that all of her son's new friends could attend. Almost everyone had brought their dress uniforms to work with them that morning, planning to change at the end of shift. The wool uniforms were currently hanging in their lockers to avoid getting wrinkled, identical suits hanging breast-to-back along the wall in the dark locker area.

The only unadorned locker belonged to Bugs. Alex assumed she was going to skip the service and didn't particularly blame her; she understood that going to the funeral of the man you were replacing would feel a little weird. A little past seven in the morning, however, Leary called Bugs into his office and had a short discussion with her. Afterward, she made some noise about needing to head home sometime before noon to pick up her uniform.

When she had a spare moment, Alex headed outside with her cell phone to call Rachel and let her know the funeral details. She leaned against the wall, facing the street as she dialed Rachel's number. Murray and Bugs hadn't been giving her a moment's piece and, to keep them from eavesdropping, she'd finally moved it outside. "Rachel? It's Alex. I didn't wake you, did I?" At dinner, Rachel had mentioned working the night shift at the hospital the next night.

"No, it's all right. I was just napping," Rachel said, contradicting herself. "What's the plan?"

"The funeral starts at 1:30, so I was thinking I would swing by your place around an hour before that."

"That sounds perfect. I'll be ready to go at about 12:30," Rachel said. After a moment, she added, "You know, I saw you on my way home from work this afternoon."

"Oh, yeah? Where? You drive by the house or something?"

"No, it was downtown. You were working... some kind of gas leak or something...?"

"Oh!" Alex said. She watched an SUV pull into the firehouse parking lot as she tried to remember the scene of that afternoon's fire, watching until it moved out of sight before she finally asked, "Where were you?"

"On the bus."

Alex thought for a second, trying to remember a bus. "Bus... oh, yeah, I saw that. Bugs and I were right by it. Why didn't you try to get my attention? It would've been nice to see you."

"I don't know. I just... I'd never seen you in your uniform and looking all... hot."

Alex was glad she'd moved outside; she would never have lived down the deep crimson blush she currently had going. "So you were spying on me?"

"A little," Rachel admitted.

Alex smiled. "Well, I'll just have to remember that. See about getting some revenge."

"I'll be on the look-out."

They said good-bye and hung up, Alex heading back into the station. Murray intercepted her halfway across the apparatus bay, putting an arm around her shoulder and steering her back the way she'd come. "Hey, Crawford, what's up, how you doing, fancy a soda, me too, let's walk to the store, my treat."

She glanced sideways at him. "Murray, your brain damage is starting to kick in."

"Just walk," he said, looking over his shoulder.

"You're freaking me out, Murray."

They were halfway to the big garage doors when she heard someone shout "Alex!" from the kitchen.

She groaned and stopped as she recognized the voice. She looked at Murray, patting him on the arm and whispering, "Bless you for trying." She turned and faced Martin Lancaster with a fake smile plastered on her lips. "Mr. Lancaster. What a... surprise."

"A pleasant surprise, I would hope," he said, walking towards her.

"It's a surprise," Alex said, forcing herself to approach him. "What... are you doing here?"

"I simply wished to express my condolences for your fallen brother. If your Mr. Von Elm determines that these fires are indeed aimed at me or my company, I feel it would be my duty to make amends for..."

Alex held up her hands to stop him. "We're just doing our jobs, Mr. Lancaster. There's no need for..."

"Oh, please! I insist! And with the funeral being today..."

"You are not coming to the funeral," Alex said, unable to stop the words before they were out. "I mean... i-it's probably just going to be a family affair. The people he worked with, his family, things like that. I don't think his mother wanted a big spectacle..."

"Well, I'm sure one more person..."

"It really wouldn't be right. I'm sorry, Mr. Lancaster, but we have to ask that you not attend."

He appeared crushed, but nodded slowly. "Okay. I understand. Thank you for your candor, Alex."

"Ms. Crawford."

He pinched a smile and said, "Yes, of course. Well, I should get going. Thank you for your time, Al... Ms. Crawford. Mr. Murray."

Murray grinned and said, "Not a problem, Mr. Lancaster."

Martin slipped between them and headed for the door. When he was gone, Murray whistled and said, "Ooh, boy howdy, that was harsh."

"The man has been harassing me for close to a year," Alex said as she walked towards the kitchen. "Maybe now he'll stop requesting me for his inspections. I don't mind doing my share, but..." She froze when she saw the kitchen. "What is all this?"

"Lancaster brought it," Bugs explained as she buttered a bagel. "He's a good guy."

"Yeah," Alex scoffed. "I'll let you take a couple hundred of his inspections, see how much you like him then." She was still a little awed by the spread. The table was covered with boxes of bagels, bags of donuts, a bowl of fresh fruit, two tall cartons of orange juice, a gallon of milk, bags of Pepperidge Farm bread... the firehouse was set for at least a week's worth of breakfasts. Or two days, depending on how much restraint Murray was able to display.

Alex took a seat, picking up a bunch of grapes and plucking one from the stem. "Okay, I've only met him the once. But you gotta admit," Bugs said, motioning with her strawberry-drowned bagel, "the guy knows how to say thank you. Once, at Engine 4, we pulled this guy out of a smoky apartment. Wasn't breathing, had to perform CPR, I think they even put him in that hyperbole chamber."

"Hyperbaric chamber," Murray corrected.

"Right," Bugs nodded. "Anyway, once he was all better, he shows up at the firehouse with a brand-new big screen TV. Just in time for the World Series, too. We got to watch the Red Sox break the curse in style, I tell ya."

"Never mention those rat bastards again," Murray said, eyes aflame with hatred.

Bugs looked up, eyes wide, and looked to Alex for help. She smiled and explained, "Murray had to give everyone in the firehouse fifty bucks the day after the World Series."

"Because..."

"We're not allowed to say why," Alex interrupted, winking. "It wasn't the most charitable donation we've ever received."

Murray grumbled, "It was a sure thing... eighty damn years and they go and break their tradition the day *I* try to make some dough," and went back to devouring a banana.

"What are you doing after this?" Bugs asked.

"Toilets," Alex groaned. "When I took the test to become a firefighter, I had no idea the job description included cleaning toilets."

"Or windows," Murray said. "Man, *maids* don't even do the windows anymore."

"Neither do you, Streaky," Alex said. "Why d'you ask, Bugs?"

She shook her head. "I need to run back to my apartment and pick up my dress uniform."

"I thought you went already?" Alex said.

"I did. It was a little wrinkled, so my fiancÚ offered to get it pressed for me."

"Your fiancÚ does your laundry?"

Bugs held her hands out in a 'what-do-you-want-from-me' gesture. "He offered, I needed it done... what's the problem?"

"Man no use iron," Alex grunted. "Man make fire. Man kill thing, wife barefoot and pregnant."

Murray held up his hands. "Whoa, now, whoa... don't make me out to be some sick chauvinist. I'm modern, I'm a sensitive guy... but it just seems weird that the future Mr. Bugs is standing at home with an apron, hunched over an ironing board while his bride-to-be is out fighting fires. It's topsy-turvy is all."

"This isn't your grandfather's fire department," Alex shrugged.

"No, it ain't. Because my grandfather wouldn't have been very welcome in a firehouse."

Alex knew he had a point and conceded it to him. Besides women, blacks and Hispanics had the hardest time breaking into the profession. She was about to say something when Robert Holt wandered into the kitchen. He was dripping with sweat, his t-shirt sleeves cut off at the shoulders. He glanced at the food on the table, not saying a word as the three people seated there followed him with their eyes. He opened the fridge, withdrew a jug of fruit punch and chugged half the bottle.

Releasing a healthy belch, he screwed the cap back on and replaced it in the fridge. He wiped his mouth on his forearm and left the kitchen again. Murray shook his head and said, "That dude is weird."

"Talking about me behind my back, are ya?"

Alex jumped. She hadn't even seen the new arrival until his arm was around Murray's neck, his free hand flat on top of his captive's bald head. Murray froze, eyes wide, lips pressed out as if he was trying to whistle as his hands went to the arm wrapped around his throat. "Holy...!" Murray gasped.

Bugs and Alex were out of their seats, Alex barely believing her eyes. "Weasel?!"

"The one and the same, darling," he said, grinning brightly. He released Murray, who gasped and spun around to confirm the owner of the voice. Wizell reached out and clasped Alex's hand, chuckling evilly. "How's the No-Boys-Allowed Firehouse doing without me?"

"We're dragging ourselves through each day," Alex assured him, moving around Murray for a hug.

"My trachea is fine, by the way," Murray rasped.

"Big baby," Wizell muttered with a grin. He slapped Murray on the back and turned to Bugs. He squinted and pointed a finger at her. "Now, I know you're one of the twins... and you've got to be... uh..." He snapped his fingers and said, "Aw, man, just tell me."

"Heather Riley."

Wizell clapped once and said, "Bugs! We got Bugs in the firehouse!" He shook her hand and said, "Eric Wizell. Weasel to those who know me. Pleased to meet you."

Alex shook her head and examined the lieutenant. He was wearing his dress uniform, every thread precisely where it belonged. His gloves were tucked into the jacket pocket, the fingers sticking out and draping over the edge. His cap was the only thing missing, but it was most likely out in the apparatus bay. The only incongruous parts were the bandages wrapping around his neck and ears. "They let you out of the hospital, huh?"

"Oh, well, special occasion and all," he said, indicating his uniform. "I gave them my puppy dog eyes and a little bit of the bottom lip..." He turned to Bugs, widening his eyes and puffing his bottom lip out to Oliver Twist-levels. "I got a day-pass. They're not letting me come back to work until next week. The bastards. I'm fine now. I'll find an excuse to hang out here, you got my word on that."

"Yeah, but I don't want to be behind you in a fire when that fancy new skin of yours starts flaking off," Alex said.

Wizell scoffed. "Women." He sighed and patted Murray on the shoulder. "Is Leary around?"

Alex nodded. "He should be nearby. C'mon, Bugs, we'll go see if we can round him up."

"Okay," Bugs said, unsure of why she had to go. They headed out into the apparatus bay. Alex glanced back and saw Wizell take Bugs' seat, putting a hand on Murray's shoulders. He had known how close Murray and Jones were, knew how the death had to be hitting the big man. Alex moved on, giving the men their privacy.

~

Wizell and Leary sat in the lawn chairs out front and sipped root beers while they talked about the calls the truck had taken in the past few days. From the locker room, Alex could hear them laughing and joking about Holt's constant weight-room presence. She and Bugs were in the locker room, the curtained-off space expanded to take up the extra room necessary for a second woman.

Alex had taken off her t-shirt and was reaching for her dress blouse when Bugs said, "Can I ask you a personal question?" Bugs asked.

Alex tensed slightly, but said, "Sure."

"Murray's little... slip the other day. About you... being..."

"Do you want me to leave until you're dressed?" Alex asked sincerely. They were both in their bras, but Alex had her trousers on. Bugs was standing just behind her in a pair of boxer shorts.

Bugs laughed, "No, don't be silly. I was just wondering if it made it easier or harder to be in the department."

Alex frowned. "What do you mean?"

"Well, for one thing, you probably don't have guys hitting on you all the time. That's gotta be... pleasant."

Alex laughed. "Oh, please. The fact that I'm not interested doesn't deter them one iota. If anything, it makes them more determined. A couple of guys think that I'm only gay because I haven't spread my legs for the right guy yet."

"Right," Bugs said. "Just like Murray and Leary are only straight because they haven't found the right queen to bend them over a chair."

Alex laughed and said, "Oh, God, do not let them hear you say that!" She pulled her dress shirt out of the closet and shook her head. "Wearing a shirt and tie, cleaning toilets... and here I thought running into burning buildings would be the worst part of my job."

"I'd give anything to be running into a burning building right now," Bugs griped as she worked her hair into a bun. "So it doesn't give you any... I don't know, special camaraderie with the guys?"

"Just because we happen to like sleeping with the same people?" She shrugged. "I didn't get very much respect in the department until I dragged Murray through a window. Not only saved his life, but showed the boys I could do all the stuff they could. They warmed to me after that... and after I strung up this sheet so they wouldn't have to sacrifice their entire den."

"Why would they...?"

"The big wigs down at city hall wanted to give me my own locker room. If the measure passed, they would have changed the den into a women's locker room. So I went out and campaigned against it, making sure the bill didn't get voted in and then I just put this up. It showed them that I was a team player."

"So it's all political, huh?"

"Yeah, pretty much," Alex sighed. "You just have to roll with the punches."

Bugs nodded. "I know. It just sometimes feels like we're gonna keep taking the punches until the guy hitting us gets a sore shoulder."

Alex grinned and finished buttoning her blouse. "Very apt."

"So are you seeing anyone?"

Alex shrugged, a picture of Rachel popping into her mind. "I have someone I'm currently very fond of, yes." She pulled on her trousers, tucked the shirt into the waistband and fastened the belt. Wiggling her toes in the tight black socks, she half-turned and said, "Can you imagine if we got a call right now?"

"Oh, yeah," Bugs laughed. "I can see the headlines now... 'The Dapper Department.' Firefighters responding to a blaze in suits and ties."

"Screw that," Alex said. "This suit cost me over three hundred bucks. If I have to go into a fire, I'm going in naked before I get this thing dirty." She angled the mirror on her locker door and bent down, trying to watch as she wound the tie around itself. "Damn things... most departments in this day and age have clip-on ties. It's the wave of the future. Keeping these horrific little... tying ties... is like keeping a typewriter when a computer will do."

"Or having laces when Velcro tightens your shoes just as well," Bugs said as she stepped in front of Alex. "Here. You're hopeless... let me get it." She reached up, undoing the sloppy knot Alex had made and redoing it in a few seconds. She looped and knotted the tie, then pulled the knot tight against Alex's throat. "Too tight?"

"No, it's good. Thanks."

Bugs stepped back to her locker and pulled her jacket off the hanger. "Does your girlfriend usually tie your tie for you?"

"There's no 'usually' with us... I mean, we just started going out."

"Oh, I see," Bugs said. "Well, you better make sure she can tie a tie before it gets too serious. I've seen relationships crumble for smaller reasons."

Alex laughed and said, "I'll keep it in mind."

~

Rachel, unsure of what to wear, went online and searched for fire department funerals. All the images she could find showed scores of firemen in identical black suits and caps, the picture of formality. All the firefighters seemed to be wearing a regulation dress uniform and she didn't see many civilians in any of the photos she found, so she had to decide what to wear based on the dress uniforms. She headed to her closet and summarily disqualified most everything she owned.

After about twenty minutes of debating with her inner fashionista, she withdrew a simple maroon gown and laid it out on the bed. The dress was an appropriate length for a funeral, wide shouldered and not too low-cut. The only markings on the dress were the narrow threads breaking up the smooth expanse from the bottom of her breasts down to her waist and a smattering of violets running along the hem. She shed her robe and slipped into the dress and stood in front of the mirror to refresh her memory of how it looked on her. She reached up to gather her hair, testing it both up and down to see which complimented her better.

She primped and preened for a few minutes, then told herself to stop being silly. Alex, after all, probably wasn't acting like a giddy high school senior on her way to the prom. She sighed and let the dress fall. She slipped out of her underwear and went to the run the water for her bath.

~

Leary stepped out of his office with both arms held out, his wrists turned out as if he expected to be handcuffed. "Would someone give me a damn hand here?" he asked. Alex walked by with her hand over her eyes. "Crawford, would you mind..."

"Sorry, Chief," she said. She kept her hand firmly over her eyes and said, "If I look at you in your dress uniform, I may have to revoke my homosexuality."

"Cause you look so damn fine," Murray grinned as he stepped up to fasten Leary's cufflinks for him. Leary sighed as Murray's thick fingers managed the small holes with ease.

Bugs walked by, fitting her cap over her bun. "Ooh, men dressing men. Does he tie your shoes for you, too, Chief?"

Leary grumbled, "I'm just not that good manipulating at small things... that's all."

"Then how do you aim in the bathroom?" Wizell asked.

"Are you still here, Charcoal?" Leary snapped.

Wizell held his hands up. "Whoa, whoa, not nice making fun of the nearly fried guy over here. Channel 6 called me a hero."

"Channel 6 also airs Jerry Springer in the afternoons," Leary pointed out. "I'm not exactly holding my breath for their Pulitzer or Tony or whatever the hell award they give TV stations. Now come on, let's get a move on, gals and fellas." He pulled his cap on and Alex glanced back at him. All joking aside, the man was built to wear the dress uniform. It was enough to make any woman take a second look.

They spread out to their own cars. Leary paused to talk with the incoming lieutenant before he joined them in the parking lot. "We gonna convoy to the church?"

"I can't," Alex said. "I have to pick up Rachel."

He gave her a thumbs-up and said, "Everyone else?"

"Sounds good to me," Wizell said. "I don't know where the church is."

Murray banged the roof of his trunk and said, "Carpool with me, Weasel."

Wizell hurried to catch up and slid into the passenger seat of Murray's truck. The company pulled out together, lining up behind Leary's Suburban. When Alex's Jeep pulled off towards Rachel's apartment, Bugs, Murray and Leary all sounded their horns in farewell. She waved through the window at them, honked her own horn in return and laughed when she saw all the other motorists' looks of confusion.

~

Rachel was putting the finishing touches on her make-up when there was a knock on the door. "Perfect timing," she smiled at her reflection. She shut off the lamp and hurried down the dark hallway, her bare feet making shush-shush noises in the carpet. "Just a minute!" she said, pausing in the foyer to slip into her flats. She smoothed the bodice of the dress, grabbed her purse and opened the door.

"Oh, wow," she gasped, unable to restrain herself.

She'd seen the photos online, but nothing could have prepared her for the sight of Alexandra Crawford standing at her door in full dress uniform. The jacket was jet black, save for two yellow stripes circling each wrist. Six gold buttons marked with SFD gleamed on her chest, the black tie perfectly knotted under her chin. She wore a military-like cap that shielded her eyes, her dark hair feathering out in the back.

When Alex brought one hand up to fiddle nervously with her collar, Rachel saw that she was wearing fine white gloves with three pleats on the back running from her wrist up to her fingers. She exhaled and finally blinked, taking a step back. "You... look magnificent."

Alex shifted from one foot to the other, looking down at herself. "I look like the guy in those ads trying to get kids to join the Marines." She looked up and said, "You, on the other hand..."

"Is this all right? I-I wasn't sure what was appropriate..."

"This is more than appropriate," Alex interrupted. "You look gorgeous. Gorgeous." She tilted her head and said, "If I could, just..."

Rachel nodded.

Alex stepped forward and brought her hands up. Rachel bowed her head as Alex reached around and cupped the back of her head. Her fingers slipped around for a bit and, when she stepped back, Rachel felt her hair fall loose onto her shoulders. Alex brushed her fingers through the freed strands and said, "Yeah. Perfect."

"Thank you." She extended her arm and said, "Shall we?"

Alex took the arm and tucked it against her side as she escorted Rachel to the elevator. Rachel couldn't help smiling; after a lifetime of being the background, being the blood-smeared anonymous face in an emergency room, now she felt wanted, attractive... loved. She covered Alex's hand with her own and rested her head on the taller woman's shoulder.

~

He couldn't resist. It was just too sweet. Too perfect.

He sat in the back pew and tried to remain inconspicuous. The family was already here, the mother in tears while the father stood his ground stoic, proud. His son had died a hero. Yeah. Hero. He died trying to save a room filled with ratty furniture. Where's the ticker-tape parade? Big whoop. The daughter, the dead fireman's sister, was a mess. Make-up streaking down her face, sobbing against her mother's shoulder. It was truly a spectacle... someone should've done something about it, but no one did. Stupid people with the boundaries.

The firefighters arrived en masse, sweeping into the room like the Knights of the friggin' Round Table. Crisp black suits, hats pulled low to hide their eyes. They looked more like the Mafia, now that he thought about it. Here to bury one of their own, a very closed-off, fraternal organization. Yeah, just like the Mafia.

He supposed that made him Eliot Ness. Cleaning up the city, one dirty mobster at a time. He resisted a smile at that and scanned the crowd of firemen for his special project. He panicked when he didn't see her; had she decided not to come? He knew she had been right behind Jones when he died. Maybe the guilt had finally gotten to her.

Fuming, he stood and headed for the back of the sanctuary. No one saw him go, which was fortunate; not many people stormed out of a funeral muttering curses. He'd wanted at least a few more fires of playing with Crawford. If she was going to break this easily, he had been sorely mistaken in choosing her for his pet project.

He climbed into his car, ready to burn rubber out of the lot, when he spotted a familiar Jeep slid into an empty space.

Alex Crawford got out of the driver's side, went around the front of the car and opened the passenger door. She put her arm around an attractive woman with long dark hair, guiding her to the front of the church. What was this? Jones's wife? Or perhaps...

He looked again at how Crawford's hand rested in the small of the other woman's back. It was such a natural gesture, so easy, so...

Intimate.

His eyes widened and he pressed back against the seat, watching the door of the church long after Crawford and her... her... the other woman... had gone inside. This changed things, he told himself. This changed things *dramatically.*

To be continued in Chapter Nine

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