By Geonn Cannon

Author's Note: While it's not a sequel or continuation, events in this book take place in the same universe as "On The Air" as evidenced by one character's name. It takes place before the events detailed in that novel.


Prologue -

Black 26

Her first thought was that this was, at long last, the boogeyman from her closet finally come to get her. The smoke was rising behind him and he wasn't shaped like any other man she'd ever seen.

Usually, whenever she woke up during the night, she found herself looking up at the pale green glow-in-the-dark stars and planets her Daddy had stuck to the ceiling over her bed. Now they all seemed very distant, fuzzy, like the real stars that she could see outside. Sometimes clouds got in the way and the stars looked like they were about to burn out; that's what her personal solar system looked like now. But how could clouds have gotten into her room? Did the boogeyman bring them?

Alex blinked her eyes, which were watering, and started to sit up. The man held her down, but it wasn't a scary move. She stayed where she was and he said, "Hold tight, honey, we'll get you out of here. But we have to stay low, okay?"

She nodded, eyes locked on the big black number 26 that was on the front of his hat. With his hat and the heavy coat he was wearing, he looked like a miner. But why would a miner be in her bedroom? And why was he wearing a coat when it was so hot? It was almost too much for her to stay under her princess-adorned quilt. He pulled the quilt down and pulled her to the side of the bed, letting her fall gently to the floor. "You okay?" he said.

She nodded and he fumbled with something by his side. Alex was scared again, but only for a moment. He put the thing over her mouth and nose and told her to hold it there. She did as she was told, never taking her eyes from where his face was supposed to be. "We're going to get out of here as quick as a flash, okay? But we're going to have to crawl at first, because there's a lot of really hot air over our heads."

"Make us cough," she managed in her small, scared voice.

"Yeah," he said. "I don't know about you, but I hate to cough. So we'll just stay low, okay?"

She nodded. He bundled her to his chest, holding her with one arm and making a tent over her body with his own. He crawled on his one free hand and knees, moving through the small bedroom with a speed that almost made Alex feel like she was on some kind of weird amusement park ride. She wrapped her arms around the monster-man's neck and held on as tight as she could. The thing he'd fastened on her face was slipping and she tried to rearrange it.

"No, honey, you have to keep that on," he said as he covered her hand with his thick glove. "I know it's uncomfortable, but it's better than what's out here."

As he crawled out of her room, she saw the living room and kitchen of their little apartment. That was where Daddy sat by the window and smoked his cigars, watching traffic go by. That over there was where Mommy did her crossword puzzles and looked in the dictionary because that was learning, not cheating. Something smelled bad, like when Mommy 'flubbed one' in the kitchen and they ordered pizza for dinner.

Now they were in the hallway and she could see Jessica Harvell's apartment door across the stairway. It had been broken. Maybe by the monster-man. Maybe they were taking all the little girls. She felt scared, remembering all the scary stories her Daddy sometimes told her. She didn't want to be holding onto the monster-man anymore, she didn't want to be in this gross hallway and she wanted to be in her bed looking up at the stars like--

"You like stars?" the monster-man asked.

Alex jumped, afraid that he could read her mind and she shuddered.

"I saw the posters in your bedroom when I was coming to get you. You like stars?"

"D-Daddy put up a solar system in my bedroom."

"Did he? I missed that. Will you show me when we get your home all fixed up?"

Fixed up? What did that mean? She nodded even though she wasn't sure and then pushed her face against his neck despite how scared she was. The thing on her mouth and nose pressed into her skin and she wanted to yank it off but was scared of what the monster-man might do if she did. Now that they were on the stairs, he wasn't crawling anymore.

Over his shoulder, it looked like the upstairs of their apartment was disappearing in fog.

*'Like Alice,'* she thought. *'She followed someone away from home, too, only I don't think the white rabbit was quite as scary as the monster-man.'*

"My sister bought me a telescope one year for Christmas. Just sits in the corner of my living room collecting dust."

"Daddy gave me a telescope."

"Really? What kind is it?"

She rattled off the details her Daddy had taught her. She didn't know what they meant, but he'd seemed so proud when he presented it to her. She knew it was probably more than they could afford, so she had jumped up and down and kissed him on the cheek and said he was the best Daddy in the whole world. And he was, because he didn't get another new fishing pole for almost two whole years after that. Mommy had said that; Alex still wasn't sure what it meant, but the way Mommy said it...

They were outside and it was so *cold*! She clung to the monster-man, mostly because he was still warm, and he carried her across the parking lot. There were so many cars, so much noise all around... she was starting to get scared when she heard her Daddy's voice across the parking lot.

"Alex...? Alex!"

She twisted in the man's arms and looked frantically for her Daddy. He was in his pajamas, naked-chested and running barefoot towards her. The monster-man released her and her Daddy wrapped his arms around her at the same instant. She hugged him, smelling his smell instead of the stinky smoke smell of the monster-man. "They wouldn't let me go back in," her Daddy was saying over and over again.

Her Mommy was stroking her hair, crying really loud and Alex wondered if the monster-man had broken something in the apartment. It was so loud and so bright! Why was everything so loud when it was still the middle of the night?

They sat in the back of a big, bright truck that was red on the outside and very, very white on the inside. She sat on her Daddy's knee because he didn't seem to want to let her go. She spotted the monster-man a few feet away, recognizing him because of his gloves; the little finger was torn and ragged. She remembered seeing that finger in her bedroom.

As she watched, the man took off his hat and put it down on the back of a big red truck with a ladder on top. He yanked on something that was on his head - it looked like a stretchy sock - and a wave of black hair appeared. Someone walked past him and he turned, smiling at the other man's comment. Alex frowned, leaning to one side to look at the man's face.

"What is it, hon?" her Daddy said quietly, rubbing her back between her shoulders. "What are you looking at?"

"That man."

"What about him?" her Mommy asked.

"He's..." Alex screwed her face up and tilted her head, trying to find the right word. "He's just... an ordinary man."

"Yeah, honey," her father smiled, cradling her head to his chest. "Yeah, he is."

Chapter One,

Ordinary Woman

It had taken her most of a year, but Alexandra Crawford had finally found the perfect route. She'd tried the track at the high school, but it was too monotonous for her tastes. She had tried running around her neighborhood, but too many single (and not so single) men had taken an interest in her for that to last very long. Finally, she had discovered the footpath through Woodbine Park suited her needs perfectly; nice location with plenty of gorgeous scenery, quiet but not abandoned, the perfect length.

It wound through the park, following the brick-lined creek for a while before they parted ways and eventually crossed each other with a small footbridge. Half of the trail was in a sparsely wooded area, providing shade when the sun was too strong and a windbreak when it was too cold. The first and last portion of the path was flanked on either side by large blocks of concrete where very serious senior citizens pondered their next chess move. A few of the regulars sometimes waved at Alex and she always returned it with a cheerful greeting of her own. The main draw of the path, however, was not the scenery or the company.

As she neared the front gate of the park, her body began to slow almost of its own free will. She stepped onto the sidewalk and turned to the right, ducking across the street and into the small café that she'd happened upon while scouting running locations.

There was already one customer, so she stepped into line and checked her pulse. By the time she'd counted off a minute, the first customer was gone and Peter was smiling at her from behind the cash register. "Peter," she said, pulling the iPod plugs from her ears. He extended a tall, disposable cup of cappuccino over the counter and she took it greedily. "Saint Peter," she amended.

"Light of my life," Peter said. "Give me two reasons why we don't run off and get married somewhere. I'm thinking Vegas or Atlantic City."

"Two reasons," Alex said as she took that nearly-religious first sip of her coffee. She leaned against the counter and ticked off the reasons on her fingers. "Okay, how about the fact that your father would kill you if you abandoned his café?"

Peter made a rude sound and then said, "Next?"

"Are we ignoring the gay thing?" she asked.

"Yes, the gay thing doesn't count as a reason."

She pretended to think a moment before she tapped the counter with one knuckle. "I got it. Michael!"

Peter's eyes grew wide and he made a 'cut-it-out' gesture by slashing a finger across his throat. The door to the kitchen area of the café swung open and a muscular man in a blue t-shirt peered out. Peter looked nervously at him and waved nonchalantly. "Hey, Mike... Alex here was just gonna tell you how she wanted to start paying for her coffees."

Alex smirked and said, "Sorry, Mike. Never mind."

Michael rolled his eyes and made a chatter-box motion with his hand before he disappeared again. Peter glared at her and said, "Never nice to play like that, girl."

She gave him a thumbs-up and stepped to the side, allowing his next customer to step up to the counter. The woman ordered and Peter moved to the cappuccino machine. "You got a shift today?" he asked, looking at Alex over the counter display.

She nodded as she sipped her coffee. "Yeah. Noon to noon."

Peter gave her a stricken look. "So I won't be seeing your gorgeous face tomorrow morning? How will I cope?"

"I'm sure you'll survive. If not, I'll make sure Michael throws you a very melodramatic funeral. Besides, I may not be running much longer anyway if the thermostat keeps dropping." It was still warm for mid-September, but before long going outside in shorts and a t-shirt would be a definite no-no. "And hey, you never know... I may have a chance to stop in tomorrow despite the shift. They're jerking me around again, so I may be out and about."

"Another inspection?"

"Mm-hmm," Alex said as she took another drink.

"They're swine, all of them. Big, fat, rutting pigs is all they are," Peter scoffed as he handed the next customer her drink. "Thank you, come again!" he said. "So these inspections... anything special?"

She shook it off. "Nah, just some regular old lame fire inspections. Go look at a new building, make sure it conforms to the fire code... counting sprinklers, checking all of the fire exits, that sort of thing."

"Pays your dues, I guess," he said.

"Yeah, but you'd think my dues would be paid off by now."

"The interest on dues, sweetheart," he exhaled and said, "It's the worst in the business."

Alex laughed and raised her cup to him. "Thanks for the lifeblood," she said as she headed for the door. "Apologize to Michael for the teasing."

"Oh, he *knows,*" Peter laughed, waving her off.

She walked down the street, checking her watch and making a mental note about her time. She hadn't beaten her personal best, but she wasn't slacking off, either. She found her Jeep right where she'd parked it - a minor miracle in some parts of this town - and climbed inside, seeing that she had a whole hour to make the fifteen minute trip to the firehouse.

Turning the key, she revved the engine and decided to try for another personal best.


The tires of her Jeep squealed in protest as it lurched into her regular space, next to Murray's SUV and a few spaces down from the Chief's truck. As she climbed out, she saw that she had managed to make the trip in just less than seven minutes. She smiled, making a mental note that her personal best was now one minute lower and headed for the main doors.

The station house was a squat, two-story brick building with a small hill between it and the main road. This gave the impression that the second story was the ground floor and that the trucks emerged from some secret exit like the Batmobile. Murray, the driver for the ladder, had once commented that he was the first black Batman, to which the Chief had replied that he would also be the last black firefighter if he didn't slow down just a tad.

The edge of the building extended around the parking lot like a bony finger, separating it from the driveway. As she rounded the extension, she spotted Chief Leary sitting in a white lawn chair just outside of the apparatus bay. He was with Wayne Murray and Alfred Jones, the probie, and he was the only one seated. The other two firefighters flanked him like guards in some Arthurian legend.

"You always drive like that?" Leary asked, not taking his eyes off the highway.

"Only when I'm trying to beat a record, Chief."

He smirked and nodded without chastising or praising her for her reckless behavior. She nodded to Murray and Jones, both of whom offered a wave, as she headed inside. "You guys been here long?" she asked. They were on-shift with her and weren't acting as if they had just arrived.

Murray smirked at her. "You may have beaten *your* personal best, Crawford..."

"...But the boys still have the title," Jones finished.

Alex laughed, still amazed at how the probie had started finishing Murray's sentences. Pretty soon, the two would become inseparable. Thoughts of possible nicknames for the two were already the source of several contests throughout the house. The most popular at the moment seemed to be Frick and Frack, while Alex was a proponent of the Muppets characters Statler and Waldorf.

The fact that Jones was a lanky white guy also provided a bevy of suggested nicknames, most of them racial in nature. The Chief was lobbying hard for Riggs and Murtaugh, the characters from the Lethal Weapon movies. Nothing had been decided upon yet, so they were still just Murray and the Probie.

The lockers were located along the western wall of the apparatus bay in a foxhole-like depression that was covered by a wooden awning. Alex slipped down the three steps, and passed Eric Wizell on her way to her locker. She tossed her bag into the cubby hole and turned back to the Lieutenant. He was hunched over on the bench, reaching down to lace up a pair of boots.

"Planning on a hike?" she asked as she opened her locker. She peeled off her exercise shirt without hesitation; Wizell had seen her in her underwear too many times for her to worry about a sports bra. She yanked a t-shirt over her head and squirmed into a pair of trousers as Wizell tightened the laces on his boots.

"Like 'em?" he said. He sat up, angling his foot this way and that so she could see the bright new leather. His face was shaped like a heart, wide at the top and pointed at the chin. He kept his thinning hair cut short, forming an M on top of his head. The goatee framed his sly grins perfectly, earning him the nickname Weasel. He stood and worked his right foot back and forth. "Just got 'em. Thought I'd test them out tonight, see how they stood up to a little pressure."

"Here's hoping," Alex said. She shut her locker door and said, "Has the chief said anything about the inspections?"

"Yup. He told me who it was that called."

Alex closed her eyes. "Oh, no. Please, tell me it's not..."

"Sorry, Alex. It was the revered Mister... Lancaster," Wizell said in a tone that most people reserved for Hitler and their mothers-in-law.

Alex shuddered and said, "How many damn buildings can one man design?"

"Hey, the man is an entrepreneur," he shrugged. He picked up his thermos and hoisted it to her. "And guess who he requested do the inspection?"

"Murray. Please, tell me he requested Murray."

Wizell held his hands out in a 'what-can-I-say' gesture and shook his head. "Sorry, kid."

Alex sighed and slammed her locker door as Wizell made a hasty retreat. Inspections were bad enough. Inspections for Martin Lancaster were as close to torture as she'd ever gotten. Ever since they'd met, he had harbored a crush on her. She'd been subtle, she'd been harsh... she was thinking it was time to just slap the guy across the face and tell him flat out that she wasn't interested. But, as Peter had said, it paid her dues. She would just have to grin and bear it.

She left her grumblings behind in the locker area and headed to the Chief's office to sign in. She was halfway across the apparatus bay when the alarm bell came to life.

She moved without thinking, already standing over her bunkers before she consciously realized she was going to work. Wizell fell in right next to her. He yanked his bunking pants up in one smooth motion and climbed into the truck without his jacket or helmet on. Chief Leary's position was that if you could do it while standing around, you could do it in the truck. Alex followed him into the cab and slipped her arms through the loops of her pack just as Murray climbed into the driver's seat.

"You ready to fly, fellas?" he called over his shoulder.

Alex, not knowing whether he'd forgotten she was already there or just lumping her in with the boys, said, "What're you waiting for, a green light?"

"Not on your life, Al," Murray cackled. Jones had just barely made it into the cab before Murray launched the truck forward. Alex braced herself against the wall of the cab with one hand and smiled. Murray whooped and banged the roof with his fist, watching his mirrors for signs of the engine. He laughed when he finally saw it and snatched up the radio mike. "That the absolute best you can do? I am severely disappointed, man, truly I am."

William Sawyer, the driver for the engine, came back with, "Hey, I'm-a leave you in the dust when some LEO pulls you over for speeding."

"Where is the fire, m'man, just tell me where to aim this thing!" Murray laughed and hung up, drumming his hands on the wheel.

Alex was seated with her back to the driver, unable to see into the cab without turning around. And if she bothered to go that far, she would immediately check the speedometer. No way was their speed legal. She looked over her shoulder and asked Wizell, "Where *is* the fire?"

"344 Texala Road," Wizell replied, referring to the map he had folded in his lap. "Warehouse district. Slight possibility of squatters, but otherwise..."

Alex nodded and tightened her air pack. They would still have to go in and check. A cursory look if nothing else. Next to her, Jones had his eyes closed, bobbing from side-to-side with the sway of the truck. The last time they'd gone out, she had punched him playfully and told him to wake up before he missed the fire, only to find out he'd been praying. In retrospect, the black Sharpie-drawn cross on the back of his helmet should have clued her in. She turned away and let him finish his prayer in peace.

"Damn it, Murray," Wizell hissed. "Do you even see these damn people on the road in front of you?"

"I save their lives when they in a fire," Murray said, "but if they in front of me, they just collateral damage."

Alex shook her head, marveling at how the man's language suffered when he became over-excited. The eloquent man who had, in a calmer moment, recited Puck's monologue from the end of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' was reduced to a whooping and hollering madman in the darkest mental ward. Alex leaned forward and looked through the window, seeing pedestrians standing on the sidewalks with dazed looks on their faces. Probably counting their blessings that they had just avoided being crushed by several tons of screaming fire truck.

"Have you ever been in an accident?" Jones called, eyes still tightly closed although Alex assumed he had finished praying. He had been in the station long enough to become friends with Murray, but until a day or two ago he'd been assigned to the engine. He'd spent four months there, would spent another four months on the ladder and then make a decision as to where he wanted to be permanently assigned. With Murray's driving, Alex figured it was a safe bet which he would choose.

"I've been in lots of accidents," Murray admitted over his shoulder. "But none that were my fault."

Jones looked skeptically at Alex, who nodded and confirmed, "It's true. Every accident he's been, he was the victim."

"Unbelievable," Jones muttered as he closed his eyes once more. His lips started to move and she knew he'd found something else to pray for. 'By the way, God, about the guy driving this truck...'

Wizell was on the radio, informing nearby companies that they were responding. Murray made a sharp turn onto a side road and almost tossed them all to the floor. Jones exhaled sharply and Alex reached over, patting him on the back. She was worried that most of his probationary period would be used getting accustomed to the way Murray drove.

The warehouse district flanked the west side of Shepherd like a barnacle, clinging to the more successful suburbs of the town. Evergreens loomed on three sides of the district, giving the entire area the feeling of a severely underdeveloped neighborhood. It was only when you looked closer that you saw the cracks; dozens of the sprawling, brick-and-concrete buildings were abandoned, their chain-link fences locked, their parking lots littered with garbage and festooned with sprigs of grass that poked up between the slabs of pavement.

Fortunately, the building interesting them today was unlocked and the fence was standing wide open. She'd seen Murray ram through a chained gate with the truck once and, while it had been amusing, she didn't want to witness another reaming by Chief Leary.

She watched through the window as the burning building came into sight. Murray slowed to a stop as they rolled across the parking lot, the tires of their truck rocking over the broken and uneven pavement. He drove past the front face in order to get a look at the third side, as required. It was a two-story warehouse, surrounded on all sides by a parking lot overgrown with weeds. Half the windows on the upper level were shattered, although it was unlikely they had been broken by any explosion; the building had been a wreck for a long, long time.

Wizell jumped from the truck and followed Alex and Jones towards the gear box as the engine pulled into the lot. "Get the ladder up... Jones, Murray, I want a hole on that roof." Lieutenant Thomas Franklin, the engine's officer, hurried over as the ladder began rising. "I'm the Incident Commander until Leary gets here," Wizell added for Franklin's benefit.

Franklin nodded and looked up at the building. "Squatters?" he asked.

"Don't know. I'm sending Murray and the probie up to the roof to vent."

"We're not doing a steam attack?" Franklin asked.

Wizell scoffed. "You worried about water damage in this heap?" He motioned to Alex and said, "Crawford, you're going in with me to search."

"Yes, sir," Alex said. She took off her helmet and fitted a SCBA mask over her face in one quick move. She made sure the strap was tight before she replaced her helmet.

Wizell did the same, turning as the Chief's bright red Suburban pulled into the lot. When Wizell spoke, his voice was heavily filtered through the oxygen mask. "Lieu, fill the chief in on the plan. We'll keep in contact."

Franklin nodded and headed to rendezvous with the chief while Alex followed Wizell towards the front door of the warehouse. They walked along the side of the building, looking into each window they passed to gauge the extent of the fire. "Some bastard set this," Wizell muttered. "Fire don't spread that way naturally." He stopped a few feet shy of the door and held up a hand to let Alex know they weren't going in that way. He leaned against a broken window and peered inside.

Alex looked past him and saw that the fire had spread across the concrete floor, without a doubt following the trail of some accelerant. Wizell was right; no way had this fire started accidentally. The blaze reached right up for the front door, meaning they would have walked into an inferno if they had gone that route.

"The front door's a no-go," Wizell said. "We're going in here."

Alex thumbed her radio as Wizell threw a leg over the sill. "Crawford to Chief Leary; Wizell and I are entering the building through a broken window on the main level."

"I see you, Crawford," Leary's reply came back. "Murray's got the roof ventilated and we're going to be setting up the fans on the ground for you."

"Much obliged, Chief," Wizell said.

Alex climbed in after him, taking a quick look around to get her bearings. The main floor of the warehouse was basically one huge room; a block of offices on the opposite side of the building were the only interior walls she could see. An exposed steel staircase hugged another wall, leading up to the second level. "We have about a half-dozen offices over here," Wizell said through his mask, motioning for Alex to take the opposite end. "You go there, I'm there," he said.

She nodded and headed in the direction he'd indicated. She was thankful that the smoke was still sparse enough that she could see him through it; she'd been in several fires where it was impossible to see two feet in front of you. She got to the first office and tried the knob, finding it locked. Thinking a squatter may be inside and using the lock to protect what little possessions he had, she banged her palm against the wall and called, "Fire department! Anyone in there?"

No reply. She reached for her belt, groaning when she realized that one loop was unoccupied. "Yo, Weasel. Loan me the hooligan."

Wizell unhooked a long bar from his belt and tossed it across the distance between them. She snatched the halligan, or hooligan to most of the people in the company, beneath the two-pronged head. The tool had two blades on the business end, one curved and sharp, the other straight and sharp like a spike. The bottom of the tool was curved like the claw of a hammer. She turned the tool over and slipped the claw between the door and its frame, shoving the bar with both hands. The door cracked and swung open, revealing nothing but a few cardboard boxes marked LDI and scattered papers.

"Nothing here," she reported.

"Ditto," Wizell said. He moved to one of the inner offices and pushed the door open. He was greeted by a wave of fire, blowing out like the exhale of a dragon. Alex took a step back, staring wide-eyed as Wizell dropped. The door he'd opened was now awash with flame, the backdraft reaching out and igniting his uniform.

Alex's stupor lasted almost two seconds before she was on top of Wizell. She smothered the flames licking his jacket with her own bunker coat as Wizell screamed and slapped at his own uniform. As she slapped his shoulder, the flame spread down her own glove.

Wizell tried to push her off and screamed something through his fogged mask, but she wouldn't leave. When she'd quieted the flames on his clothes, she rolled to the side to avoid the flames licking at her back and pressed herself against the concrete floor. The entire bank of offices was awash in flame now, a wall of fire that looked impossibly high.

She grabbed the nape of Wizell's collar and began scrambling backwards like a crab, dragging him along with her. Wizell was squirming, still slapping himself and trying to extinguish fire that may have gotten into the lining of his uniform. Either that or he was panicking, which frightened Alex more than the alternative. "Wizell's hurt! We're coming out!" she called through her radio. She rolled Wizell and got her arms under him to load him through the window first.

As she stood, powerful arms gripped her shoulders and hoisted her the rest of the way out, practically carrying her a few feet before dropping her roughly on the ground. "You all right?" Franklin asked her, screaming to be heard through both of their masks.

She motioned behind her and said, "Weasel's burnt."

"The medics got him. Are you all right?"

"I'm..." she looked down and saw her right glove was completely charred. Cinders had poured from the cuff and down her sleeve and she was only just now feeling the burn as they skittered across her forearm. She stretched her arm out and shook it wildly as Franklin tugged her glove off.

"Medics!" he said over his shoulder. As they ran over, he patted her on the shoulder. "You'll be good, Crawford," she said. "Good work getting Weasel out of there."

"Murray and the probie," she asked, ignoring his praise and looking towards the roof.

"Both fine. They cut the hole and got the hell out of there."

She nodded and collapsed on the ground, arms spread out to either side. She took a moment, breathing hard and staring at the bright afternoon sky. When she got her breath back, she rolled onto her side and pushed herself up. She made sure she could trust her knees and made her way over to the engine. Murray and Jones were standing against the truck, watching as the crew from the engine got their lines laid and aimed streams of high-pressured water into the flaming shell of a building.

"How badly was Wizell burnt?" she asked.

Murray motioned at the medic truck. "Looked okay to me, but they're making a pretty big fuss about him. We'll never hear the end of it."

Chief Leary was staring at the medic truck as he approached them. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder and said, "Weasel will be fine," he said, his casual use of the man's nickname indicating that the crisis was over. He nodded at Alex and said, "Crawford. Go to the hospital with him."

"I'm fine," Alex said.

"You get hurt?" Jones asked.

"Franklin saw your gloves. Probably a few embers down in your suit," Leary said. He put his hand on Alex's shoulder and gently guided her in the direction of the medic truck. "Just go, get yourself checked out and... keep Weasel from accosting the EMT."

Reluctantly, Alex turned and headed for the medics. She was halfway there when one of the reporters on the other side of the barricades thrust a microphone towards her. The woman's body was pressed tightly against the sawhorse, her arm outstretched as if she might stretch the thirty yards between them. "Excuse me, are you the firefighter who made the rescue?"

Alex motioned over her shoulder and said, "Not me. You're looking for Lieutenant Snipe. I saw him back that way."

She walked on and climbed into the back of the medic truck. She knelt on the runner next to the gurney and scanned Wizell's body. He had been burnt on the neck and face, his ears a bright red with black flakes on the lobes. It hurt to look at, but Alex kept her eyes on his and managed a smile. "How you doing, Weasel?" she asked.

He grinned at her and said, "You see the EMT I got?" he whistled and quickly added, "I got dibs on her."

Alex held her hands up as if to say 'no contest' and Wizell's eyes moved to her hand. "Jesus, Crawford..."

She dropped her injured hand back to her lap and said, "It's nothing, Wizell, don't worry about it."

He nodded and said, "The reporters didn't get ya, did they?"

"I told them Lieutenant Snipe did the rescue," she said with a smile.

"Sent 'em on a snipe hunt," Wizell laughed. "Beautiful. Ooh, and speaking of beautiful..." He motioned with his chin at the back door of the truck. Alex turned and saw a blonde paramedic climbing into the back, skirting the edge of the gurney to sit opposite Alex.

"How bad?" the new arrival asked with her eyes on Alex's wrist.

"Nothing to worry about. Couple of bandages... I'll be fine."

"We'll let the doctor be the judge of that," the EMT said. "You two fancy a ride to the hospital?"

"I'm fine," Alex insisted. "Just slap a little gauze on there, maybe an Ace bandage..."

Wizell muttered, "Leary said something about drills tonight."

Alex immediately shifted gears. "But you are the expert and if you think we need a trip to the hospital..."

Wizell graced them with a full-fledged Weasel grin. "I call shotgun."


Wizell was taken to a burn unit, wheeled into the elevator by his newest crush, the blonde EMT. As she pushed him towards the elevator, Wizell winked at Alex and said, "Don't be offended, 'Lex. She just wants to get me all to herself."

Alex flipped him off with her unburned hand and sat on the bed the EMT had pointed her to. She didn't have to wait long; a few minutes after Wizell's grinning mug was rolled into the elevator, the curtain was pushed aside and a petite brunette appeared, her face buried in a chart. "Alexandra Crawford?" she asked, finally looking up and meeting Alex's eyes.

Alex was stunned; the doctor put Weasel's EMT to shame. Her eyes were so dark brown they were practically black, her long brown hair pulled back into a ponytail that was in danger of coming loose any moment. Her skin was still slightly tanned, despite the calendar inching towards October. Alex managed to blink and utter a quick, "Hi."

"Hi," the doctor unleashed a grin that knocked Alex for another loop. "I'm Dr. Tom. You're the one with the..." She looked down at the notes. "Burnt wrist?"

Alex looked down at her arm and saw the burns that had traced a skipping trail from her wrist down to her elbow. "Um... upper arm, really."

"Oh," she said. "Must be another firefighter named Alex Crawford. I'm sorry for the confusion." She slipped back around the curtain.

Panicked, Alex jumped from the bed to catch up with the small doctor... and came up short when she found Dr. Tom standing just on the other side of the curtain. Alex blushed behind the soot on her face and tried to look casual as the doctor tried valiantly to refrain from laughing in her face.

After a moment, Alex said, "I was just... thinking. I mean... I guess you could say this is my wrist."

"Excellent," Dr. Tom said as she led Alex back around the curtain. "In that case, I think we may have something to work with."


The digital age was the impatient arsonist's dream. No need to wait until the pictures were developed to see how they turned out. Plus, there were more options on how to develop them... no longer did he have to worry about a nosy photo assistant at the Walgreen's getting suspicious of him. Nor did he have to splurge on a dark room to develop them himself. Just plug it into the computer, fiddle with some settings and presto! Just like Mom used to take.

He sat in the dirt with his legs crossed Indian-style, thumbing the "Next Picture" button next to the display screen.

It was still the middle of the afternoon, so he was hunkered down in a recessed stairway that led to an abandoned basement. He was on the property adjacent to the burnt husk, trying to keep from giggling as he looked at his latest creations.

He had been surprised when the hero firefighter had removed her helmet and revealed herself to be a woman. It was nigh impossible to tell when they were all geared up in their bunkers... gender- and race-free, like a group of robots programmed to jump into action whenever their smoke-detectors went off.

Little bugs. Little meaningless things that would be replaced in an instant if one fell.

He felt no remorse for the trap he'd set, wouldn't admit to any remorse if confronted with photos of the injured fireman's wife and two kids and his Dalmatian dog. Firemen were cockroaches. Kill one, two more crawled out of the woodwork.

They were the perfect sacrifices for his fires.

No one had died in this blaze, but that was okay... he supposed. It was his first. Mistakes might have been made.

He would correct them next time.

Tucking his camera into his knapsack, he lifted himself onto his toes and peered over the lip of the underground staircase. Firefighters were still swarming the site, even though the blaze was long extinguished. He understood. They were getting all the junk out, hoping to prevent a re-ignition. They were probably were also trying to figure out why their poor friend had almost been flame-broiled.

He settled back down and pressed himself into a corner, tucking both hands under his armpits. He couldn't leave until the firefighters left or he risked being spotted. It was okay; he had planned for a long night. He closed his eyes and nearly fell asleep, jerking when he realized he couldn't be found this close to the site of a fire. If he slept, they could sneak up on him.

Slapping his face a few times, blinking his eyes wide, he wrapped his arms around himself and rocked slowly as he waited for the crowd to disperse so he could slip away unseen. Patience was a virtue, but he needed to go...

He had more fires to plan.

To be continued in Chapter Two

Return to the Academy