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Black smoke swelled in graceful scallops as it climbed in a thick column against the midday sun, mirroring the excitement that rose in her gut. Two-story structure fire, flames showing. Perfect.
Ivy could see the thrill in Jeff's face, too, accentuated by the strobing lights of the fire truck. "Finally, some action. My wife says I've been moping around because things have been so quiet. She offered to go out and set something on fire for me."
She laughed, tucking her razor-cut bob of sandy hair behind her ears as they both hopped down from the truck and jogged with their captain to meet Battalion Chief Adrienne Strong, who was already barking orders to the guys on the first engine. She looked small under her helmet and turnouts, but her brown eyes shone fiercely beneath a fringe of hair.
"Got a report of a victim trapped inside." She stabbed a finger at a member of the crowd that was massing on the sidewalk. "A witness says he saw the owner enter the building an hour ago. He's short, a little nuts, goes by the name of Cyril. Nobody saw him come out."
Why did the name Cyril ring a bell? Ivy looked closely at the structure, which now had flames flickering through the upstairs windows. She could see outlines of boxes and furniture, stacked floor to ceiling. If the view was any indication, there would be only a small trail of usable space weaving throughout all the garbage. She sighed. "Oh, man. It looks like a Habitrail. He's got enough junk to start his own flea market."
She buckled on the ax belt, waiting for the captain to turn off the utilities. Her muscles tensed in anticipation, fingers itching to put on the mask and get inside. Instinctively she looked around for Antonio,larger than life in his turnouts. Then she remembered. Antonio moved on, Ivy. You better do the same.
When the captain gave the thumbs-up, Ivy started toward the structure.
"Wait, Beria." Strong talked again into the radio. "This is going to be ugly with all that garbage in there. Let's get it ventilated first. Help them work the front door. Jeff, see if you can get any of those witnesses to confirm we have a victim in there."
Ivy joined the two firefighters who were attacking the front door with a pry tool. The door was heavy oak, and though they heaved with all their strength, the wood gave up only reluctantly. They alternately pushed the bar and kicked at the wood with their booted feet until the wood gave with a final groan. Clouds of blackness surged out, forcing them back.
She returned to the chief in time to hear Jeff's report.
"No one can corroborate the story. The owner is apparently some kind of eccentric."
"No kidding," Ivy muttered.
Jeff raised his voice to be heard over the hum of the pumper and the whoosh of water thundering through the hose. "His schedule is erratic. No one saw him come out, but they weren't looking, either."
They watched as a firefighter, barely visible except for the flash of the fluorescent tape on his turnouts, moved past them at the nozzle end of the two-hundred-foot hose, his captain behind, sweat already coating their faces under the breathing apparatus. Ducking as low as they could manage, the two made entry.
Ivy looked past them as she and Jeff pulled on their own masks and picked their way to the door to peer inside. As she did so, she thought she saw movement from the trees next to the house. It was a glimpse really, a split-second look, but she could have sworn she saw Moe, her neighbor at the apartment complex. But what would he be doing here?
She jogged over. It was Moe, and he was shivering. "What's wrong?"
"Cyril," he said, pointing to the house then bounding away. Who was Cyril?
She refocused her attention on the house. The place was indeed a maze of junk, piled against all the walls and in towering columns in the foyer and front rooms. She strained her eyes to get a glimpse of a human form but blackness obscured everything.
Strong's radio crackled to life and she called to them. "Engine Twenty-Five is en route from a spill in Pine Grove. Their ETA is five minutes. Beria and Jones, you wait. I'm going to pull the other crew in another minute."
Ivy huffed as they trotted back. Wait? What if this Cyril guy was inside? What if he was trapped, shouting for help, and she was out here, useless? A horrifying memory fought through her control. She swallowed hard and shoved it down. "Let us go in, Chief. The victim could be in there." Ivy looked at the flames licking at the windows and her stomach clenched. "We can do a quick assessment and get out."
She shook her head. "Wait until we can get it ventilated. Twenty-Five is less than four minutes out." Frustration was painted on the chief's face, probably the consequence of being a small fire department with older equipment and only two stations to provide personnel. Her struggle was clear in the lines on her forehead and around her mouth. Potential victim versus potential injury to her people.
Antonio would have made his case by now. Ivy pressed her advantage. "In four more minutes he could be dead." She couldn't let that happen, especially if the man inside was possibly a friend of Moe.
The chief clenched her jaw muscles. "No, Beria."
Ivy knew Strong had seen many fatalities in her career from traffic accidents to drownings, but being unable to save a victim from burning to death was unthinkable, for both of them. "It would just be a quick sweep, then we're out of there."
Strong looked from Ivy to Jeff and exhaled. "Okay. One sweep and you're out." She grabbed the sleeve of Jeff's turnout coat as he pulled on his breathing apparatus. "If anything feels bad, you pull the plug. You got it?"
He nodded. They ran toward the acrid swirl of black.
Ivy could feel the chief's anxious eyes following them. Strong would be confirming the crew outside who would stand ready to pull them out if they'd need it. The thought comforted her as they pushed their way onto the ground floor. The carpet was spongy underfoot, already saturated with water. They both instinctively bent over, staying closer to the clean air. Heat pushed through their heavy protective layers.
It took only a moment to weave their way around the junk piles on the ground floor. No victims. Jeff jerked a thumb upward. Ivy nodded. The upper floor was where they were most likely to find anyone, alive or dead.
They followed the hose line up the stairs and found the two firefighters struggling to keep up with the flames. Cardboard boxes and rolls of carpet provided an ample supply of fuel for the hungry fire. The man at the nozzle end was trying to aim for the base of the fire, which thundered from an open bedroom doorway.
She prayed for the boom of a ladder hitting the side of the house that would announce the guys on Engine Twenty-Five had made it to the roof to ventilate. The hole they cut would suck all the black smoke out like a vacuum and restore visibility in minutes. But there wasn't time to sit around hoping. She and Jeff headed through a maze of debris toward the back bedrooms.
The heat was intense. Sweat poured down her face under the mask and soaked through the Nomex hood. She could feel the molten temperature through the thick gloves as she pushed her way by stacks of piled furniture.
Jeff was a few yards ahead. He'd found a locked door, and though the handle turned, it wouldn't open. He tried to force it with the pry bar.
"It's unlocked," he yelled above the noise. "But I can't budge it."
Both of them threw their combined weight at the door and it finally opened.
Flames erupted through the opening, driving them back. The room was fully engulfed.
Jeff did a cutting motion across his throat. "We're out of here, Ivy. It's gonna go up any minute." He grabbed the radio from his pocket and the battalion chief officially ordered them all to pull out. Ahead in the hallway she could see the two hosemen inching back down the stairs.
Jeff turned and followed them, his sturdy form disappearing after a few steps in the dark haze.
Ivy made to follow him when she noticed the door at the end of the hall. It had to open onto a bedroom. After a moment's hesitation she got on her hands and knees and crawled toward it. The man might be inside, calling out, his voice too weak to be heard over the cacophony. The heat intensified with each foot of floor she crossed. Her helmet felt like a vise, pressing in around her face, squeezing the breath out of her. She should follow Jeff, get out before the place went up.
But what if there was a life on the other side of that door?
A life that she was meant to save?
She moved as fast as she could toward the threshold, following the narrow strip of space that wound through the junk. Inches away, she reached out a hand to push the door open. The fingers of her gloves barely grazed the painted wood when the towering pile shuddered crazily and collapsed on top of her.
Metal pipes and crates filled with something heavy crashed down. Mountains of boxes and furniture continued to rain on top of her. The crash was deafening as she was buried in the avalanche. Something struck her head, and a knifing pain shot through her temple.
She lay on her back struggling to turn over, but the heavy debris and the weight of her air tanks immobilized her. Her face shield was fogged with moisture and soot. A collage of dark smoke and gray shadows danced in her vision. She had to reach the radio in her pocket, but she couldn't move, couldn't breathe.
The room closed in around her as she fought against the panic. Her mind spun into the past. Glimmers of memory shot through her and she could see, painted in perfect detail, her sister's face, trapped behind the glass.
She strained every muscle, every sinew to reach out and free her. Sadie, Sadie. Her own screams from long ago echoed in her ears. Help me, somebody help me get my sister. The flames rose around them in angry tongues, unforgiving, unrelenting.
Jerked back into the present, Ivy tried again to roll over. The space grew hotter with every passing second. She knew it, she could feel it, the junk all around her inching closer and closer to ignition.
It would be simultaneous.
Again she struggled to wriggle loose, to free herself from the enormous weight that smothered her. Pain coursed through her head and shoulder. Every minuscule movement caused the pile to shudder and close in around her, filling in the spaces like sand poured into a jar. It was no use. She didn't have the strength. The burden was too much to bear.
Somewhere from the vicinity of her pocket, she heard a shrill alarm sound. The shriek cut through everything else, filling the space, making her ears pulse with pain. Then there was nothing but heat as she gave herself up to the blackness that enveloped her body and soul.
Nick nestled himself into the crowd. All eyes were turned to the brilliant orange flames. He didn't mind the acrid tang of smoke. It reminded him of back home, burning leaves in the fall. A photographer jostled his way to the front, camera pointed at the blaze. Nick was careful to step out of the way, admiring the camera as he did so. The irony was not lost on him. The paper would feature the fire in glorious detail while the artist would remain invisible just behind the photographer's left elbow.
He itched to take a picture, too, with the elite camera he'd seen in a magazine. A Horseman, two lenses sharing a single shutter at lightning speed. It was not digital, of course, but he preferred it that way, relishing the anticipation that came as he waited for the film to develop. Waiting was a skill, a talent so many people lacked.
Nick pondered the conversation he'd observed between the woman firefighter and the strange guy he knew to be Cyril's friend. He'd heard that the fellow's name was Moe. Did Moe know anything incriminating? Anything he might have passed along to the firefighter? It bore consideration, but for now, Nick allowed himself to enjoy the fiery spectacle unfolding before him.
"Did you hear that?" a cadaverous old woman next to him hissed. "They said there's a firefighter trapped inside."
She clutched his arm as a pane of glass shattered on the upper floor. He patted her bony fingers. "It's incredible, all right."
He watched a spark, brilliant as a comet, explode from the roof and paint a luminous arc across the smoky sky. Definitely front-page material, he thought with satisfaction.
Tim Carnelli fought to keep the truck's speed under control.
Her name echoed in his mind and danced circles around his brain.
He knew before he heard the name. He knew when the battalion chief's voice came over the radio, pitched high against adrenaline and the sound of a working fire. Firefighter down.
"God help her," he whispered as he tore down the main road through a thickening haze of smoke. "Help her to hang on."
If he had more time to process, the irony would be palpable. Was it just last night he'd decided to move on? Even looking up Marcie's number to give her a call? Forget about Ivy, he'd told himself. You were a fool to think she'd open her heart to you after Antonio. She might never trust anyone again, especially God.
He clenched the steering wheel so hard his fingers cramped up. Not now. It wasn't time to dredge up past history.
Even so, an image rose in his mind. Ivy's short hair blowing in the breeze, green eyes alight with laughter as they rode mountain bikes together in the pre-Antonio days.
His heart thundered in his chest as the radio crackled to life again.
The dispatcher calmly repeated the message and confirmed.
They were calling for the helicopter.
He wasn't a firefighter, but everyone connected to the business knew what it meant when they called for a helicopter. And it wasn't good.
Strange sensations flooded Ivy's senses. She felt the bump of the gurney as she was rolled along, the shouted commands of firefighters amped on adrenaline, and then inexplicably, Tim was there. When had he arrived at the fire scene? He must have heard the call go out on the radio.