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Grace Addison gasped for breath inside her mask. The explosion hit them so hard they were thrown across the room, slamming into an already unsteady staircase that had collapsed under their weight. They lay in the belly of the fire, smoke so thick Grace could barely see her surroundings.
Her mind screamed at her to do something. It demanded action from her like some cruel, unfeeling boss. Richard was dead. Grace knew it just by looking at him. Her paramedic training shouted at her to go to him, but she couldn't move.
Mind reeling, she turned her eyes away from the scene, trying to keep herself from weeping in horror. She focused on one thing. Sara, who was still alive, needed her.
From where Grace lay, she could see Sara's pleading eyes peering through the clear, Plexiglas mask. Her best friend and fellow firefighter stared at Grace, beseeching her to help. Grace tried to make her body move, but she recognized the signs of shock. She cursed her weakness, her heart twisting with fresh pain, the oath she took as a firefighter going sour, like wine left too long to ferment.
The smoke was a dark, oppressive thing, weighing her down as if it had density. Mass.
Her lungs felt scorched. Orange and crimson flames crawled down the brown paneling toward them, their unrelenting journey consuming everything in their path.
She wanted to cry out. To scream for help, shout curses, anything. The clothes on Richard's body were starting to smoke. Grace struggled against panic. Her slightest movement brought a searing pain across her back. She froze, immobilized by the fierce sensations that racked her with shocking intensity.
Richard was burning!
The couch and shag carpet nearby were consumed in smoke. A wall tapestry was wreathed in flames and hissed audibly as it melted away. She coughed, tears flowing freely from eyes that stung excruciatingly.
They lay there as the fire encroached. Grace could hear the sound of movement above her. She tried to call out, to scream for their rescue. But her throat was parched. She could barely get a sound beyond the smothering mask.
A short, audible beep emitted from her Personal Alert Safety System. The device was warning her that she'd been immobile for more than thirty seconds. She was relieved at the warning and the 95-decibel tone that sounded shortly afterward. Every part of her was riveted on Sara's eyes, giving her friend that small amount of comfort as she slowly suffocated.
The scorching heat on Grace's back and shoulders intensified, telling her the barrier of her turnout coat had been breached, but again, she couldn't focus on it. Just on Sara. Her world had narrowed down to Sara.
Frantically, Sara pulled off the mask, gasping in the tainted basement air. She reached out for Grace's hand and Grace grasped it tightly, their gazes locked. Grace squeezed and Sara's eyes welled with tears. It was almost like Sara was trying to say something. Her hand contorted and jerked, then her eyes went fixed and still, her mouth going slack.
A flood of genuine tears washed away some of the sting of the smoke as Grace's vision began to dim. Her lungs felt compressed with agony as she struggled for oxygen. The red-hot pain increased along her back and shoulders, the smell of charred skin thick in her nostrils.
She was going to die.
Grace woke up gasping and choking. She threw the covers off, feeling as though her back and shoulders were on fire. She stumbled to the window and jerked it open. The cool air from the La Rosa night wafted into the room, easing some of Grace's panic and soothing her hot shoulders and back. She braced herself against the windowframe, breathing in the chill for a moment, as grateful as if she'd just been saved from drowning.
There was no more burned flesh there, nothing but scars now. But the internal scars from that day were fresh and oozing.
The serial arsonist had struck again, planted a slowly ticking time bomb in a residential building. Only one of the many fires he had set, hoping to claim more victims. This time the greedy flames had taken two of the department's best.
Grace squeezed her eyes tightly together, trying to block out Sara's beautiful blue eyes fixed in death.
The memory was as fresh now as it had been two months ago. It haunted her. Pursued her. Stalking. Accosting. No matter how hard she tried to block it out, she couldn't escape. She relived that horrible experience within the recesses of her mind like a cruelly conducted interrogation.
At least she was alive, but that meant living with the memory. Guilt assaulted her waking and sleeping. Her colleagues had gotten to her in time.
How could a residential fire in a three-story house have gone so bad? Their station had been the first to respond, but more stations had been called in as the fire escalated to a three alarm.
Her turnout coat had protected her from most of the damage of the fire, but when Grace looked in the mirror, her ravaged flesh was a scarred reminder that she'd almost lost her life.
She looked at her bedside clock; the illuminated numbers read 4:00.
Unable to go back to sleep, Grace sank down to the floor near the open window and breathed in deep of the cool air that drifted across her face.
After a moment of deep breathing, the night called to her and she reached for her running gear. She ran from the nightmares. She ran to feel in control again, but the fear was always there, just a few steps behind.
She made her way along the dirt path overlooking a still-slumbering La Rosa—the city that was under her charge as a firefighter, the city she'd sworn to protect.
Had she failed?
Her back and shoulders felt tight.
The burns were a permanent reminder of the fire that had damaged her flesh.
Her breathing hitched. Such a simple act—breathing in and breathing out. Until you couldn't; until your breath was strained and the oxygen replaced by toxic chemicals that sucked the life from you in a slow, helpless suffocation.
Rocks crunched beneath her feet as she neared the apex of the trail. It opened up, widening into a path that wound back down the corkscrew pass. At the top, she stopped, as she always did, and looked down at the city nestled northeast of San Diego's sprawling metropolis.
The sun was just starting to rise, streetlights winked off and traffic flowed. Her breathing slowed and leveled out. Sweat ran in rivulets down her back and her arms. She swiped at her forehead with a terry wristband as the sweat stung her eyes.
As the sun rose in the east, it bathed the city of about two hundred thousand citizens in a soft, rosy glow, accentuating the red-tiled, Spanish-inspired roofs. She could see all the way into the revitalized downtown. Any tourist would think La Rosa's renovation was a beautifully planned project that changed the face of the old and new architecture, giving it a much-needed face-lift, but Grace saw potential targets, potential hazards that could at any moment burst into flame by an arsonist's hand.
The edge of McCaffrey Park—a five-hundred-acre jewel that extended to the base of the foothills—was only a couple of blocks away.
Was that a plume of smoke in the distance? Her breath stumbled to nothing and held. Did it curl up into the sky with deadly intent?
Her breathing increased, but it wasn't the steady breathing of a good, healthy run. She knew, even before she tried to stop it, that she was hyperventilating.
She turned away and ran at a breakneck pace down the steep slope, her heart pounding, her senses on full alert, like a terrified deer. At the bottom, she tripped and lost her footing, falling to the ground with a hard thump, scraping her knee and the palms of her hands as she braced for the impact.
For a moment, she lay in the dirt and let the panic wash over her. Finally, she summoned enough control to push it away, push it someplace else.
Slowly, she pulled herself back up and brushed herself off.
She looked once again to the place where she thought she had seen the smoke and realized there wasn't anything there.
For a moment, she stood there, acknowledging she had overreacted. Her sense of duty warring with her terrible fear. But her duty right now was to get well. There were others who were responsible for the protection of La Rosa.
She was recuperating.
She stopped and looked back at the city, still below her. Something dark and twisted had settled there. That thing had touched her.
An arsonist was causing murder and mayhem. He had killed two of her colleagues.
But she had survived.
And the arsonist was still out there.* * *
Back at her house, she took her shower as usual, ignoring the roughness of her skin where it met the sloping line of her shoulders. She tried to shrug off the dream that replayed the reality of that day.
She had to shake this this self-pity and fear. After exiting the shower, she stared at herself in the mirror. She looked the same as she had before. She had the same big blue eyes, the same slightly curly, long blond hair. She couldn't resist a morbid urge to glance at the reflection of her shoulders as she began to dress.
But it wasn't just her self-image that had been changed that day. The trauma of watching Sara die was something Grace couldn't shake. It was like she'd been watching her own death and now she was living some kind of weird out-of-body experience.
She knew that wasn't true, but she couldn't seem to reconnect.
The harsh ringing of her cell broke her concentration and startled her. With her heart pounding, she flipped it open.
"Grace Addison?" a voice asked on the other end of the line.
"Yes, this is Grace."
"This is Tim Dawson in the mayor's office. The mayor would like to meet with you today at ten o'clock."
"What is this about?"
"The mayor will explain it all to you when you meet with him. Is ten o'clock convenient, Ms. Addison?"
"Yes, that will be fine," Grace said softly. She disconnected the call, bewildered as to what the mayor of La Rosa wanted to speak with her about.
Was he was worried that she would sue?
All three of the self-contained breathing apparatuses—or, as firefighters called them, SCBAs—they were wearing the day Richard Moore and Sara Parker died may have been faulty. Unfortunately, the effects of the explosion and the fall could have damaged the equipment, so the findings were inconclusive.
Grace had no interest in suing the city. She had simply needed the time to heal and recuperate, and her benefits had taken care of both her medical expenses and her time off from the La Rosa Fire Department.
Turning her attention to dressing, she chose her garments carefully. The white blouse covered her scars, and the black pencil skirt hugged her hips. Hips that were not as generous as they used to be. Grace made a mental note to eat more.
She walked down the wooden stairs and through the house she had worked hard to renovate and decorate. But it all seemed so inconsequential to her now.
She grabbed the banister, the wood smooth beneath her palm. She remembered when Sara had helped her to sand every inch of it. They were supposed to paint it the very next weekend. Now it was a daily reminder that Sara would never apply varnish to the lovingly restored wood. Grace paused before going outside, sweeping the room with a quick glance. She rarely even visited this part of the house anymore, save for leaving. It seemed as though Sara's presence was here sometimes, drifting through with tasks left undone.
Opening the front door, she paused. Lying on her welcome mat was an envelope—a plain, brown nine-by-twelve envelope.
Automatically, she looked around for whoever could have left it. The hair on the back of her neck stood up. Cautiously, she dipped down and picked it up. It had no writing on the outside. With fingers that had suddenly gone clumsy, she opened the clasp. She tilted the envelope and let some of the contents slide out into her hand. Grace's eyebrows drew together as she stared down at a handful of eight-by-ten photographs that seemed to have been taken in poor lighting conditions. A sudden realization of what they were coursed through her body like an electric shock. Her frame shook violently and her breath wrenched into a gasp. She saw Richard lying recumbent on the floor, his body yet unburned. There was Sara, too, looking tortured and dying behind her mask. And, she saw herself, helpless, already on fire, her hand reaching out to her friend.
She cried out loud as her shocked eyes fell on the pictures of that fateful day. Pictures that could only have been taken by the arsonist.
A fury, the likes of which she'd never experienced before, engulfed her and she released a broken sob. She flipped through each photo faster and faster, her shocked gaze riveted to the last agonizing moments of Sara's life grotesquely caught and frozen in time. Each picture she looked at only increased the panic that started in her gut and twisted up through flesh and bone into something almost seething with malice.
She backpedaled into the house and slammed the door. The photos fell from her suddenly numb hands, scattering onto the floor of the foyer. Grace backed away from them, her back hitting the door with a thud.
She closed her eyes against the knowledge that he'd somehow taken pictures using some kind of remote camera and watched the whole incident play out. He never made a move to help or rescue them.
He killed Richard.
He let Sara die.
He would have let her die, too.
Fear gripped her and her breathing increased, her heart pounding from the adrenaline that pumped into her system. Tears filled her eyes as she bent down and quickly picked up all the pictures, her hands trembling with rage. She began to shove them all back in the envelope, but discovered something else inside.
A single sheet of paper with block letters on it read, "You didn't escape. Flames are patient. They know your name. They wait for you, Grace." It was signed, "Vulcan."
She gritted her teeth, a feeling of dread washing over her. She slid the paper back into the envelope and closed the clasp. With unsteady steps that grew firmer, she went into her kitchen to get a plastic bag and dropped the envelope into the protective covering.
She took a few moments to get control of herself. All she wanted to do was don her T-shirt and shorts and run off the jumbled, intense emotions clawing through her.
Still unsettled, she tucked the plastic bag into her purse. In case the bastard was skulking somewhere nearby, she made a determined effort to keep her features smooth and even. Grace got into her car and headed to her appointment.
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