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For two hours, Local 1492 Dekalb Firefighters battled a threealarm apartment blaze in the dead of night. December was a merciless month riddled with Christmas tree and electrical fires. With this being their third call in the past twenty-four hours, the men of Local 1492 were pushed to the brink of exhaustion.
Firefighter Lincoln Carver ignored the pain pulsating through every muscle in his body as he hacked into a third-floor apartment. Despite the roar of the inferno surrounding him, he zeroed in on a series of coughs and cries for help on the other side of the door.
The moment the door gave way, black clouds of smoke enveloped him and obscured his vision.
Operating purely on instinct, he strained his ears for any signs of life and heard none.
To his right, the walls glowed a dark black and orange with flames snaking toward him.
Someone is in here. You heard them.
Lincoln kept moving, convinced that his ears hadn't deceived him. Sweat poured around his face as his heart chugged the disappearing supply of oxygen.
Get out of here.
He shook off his inner command. Someone was still in there. He just knew it.
Behind him, a part of the roof caved in and burning debris missed him by mere inches.
It's too late. Get out!
Again, he shook off the warning. He just needed a few more seconds. However, Lincoln was out of time. Something cracked and then slammed into him.
"Has anyone seen Linc?" Flex Adams asked. He handed over a young girl covered in soot to one of the paramedics.
Omar Preston removed his hat and glanced around. "I thought he was with you."
Flex shook his head and surveyed the men around him. No Lincoln.
"I'm going back in," he announced and then felt a hand tug against his shoulder.
"If Linc is still in there"
"Then I'll find him." Flex gave him a departing wink. "Be right back." He vaulted through the smoking door and up the fireengulfed stairs without hesitation.
In times like these, Flex operated best on instinct. Too much thinking was a losing man's game and action saved lives. On the second floor, flames glowed across the carpet like a radiant liquida river of doom. Above him something creaked and then crashed, sending a shiver of fear coursing down his spine.
Where is he? He forced himself to remain calm. He started to enter an apartment, but thought better of it. He's not in that one.
The walls moaned around him as if the building were alive. Next came the explosion of shattering windows and hunks of plaster fell around him. Keep moving. He flew up another flight of stairs, unsure if he was following the path to perdition.
Lincoln suppressed the pain in his lower back as he slid on his belly toward a little girl trembling in a corner. She sat with her knees drawn up against her chest, arms wrapped around her legs, while her eyes were wide with terror.
Her presence upped the ante. He had to make sure she made it out of there safe and sound. How he was going to do that was still unclear. As he approached, he guessed the child was about six years old. She was a pretty black girl with large doe eyes and hair parted down the center and fat plaits on each side. He could easily see the beautiful woman she would one day become.
Finally when he was within inches of her, her gaze withdrew from the flames licking up the walls to meet his eyes. But he saw no relief; if anything, her terror intensified.
Lincoln pulled himself up into a sitting position. He was surprised by the lack of pain in his back. In fact, he didn't feel anything.
"It's all right. I'm going to get you out of here," he shouted through the shield on his helmet.
The little girl covered her face with her hands and trembled uncontrollably.
Lincoln struggled to his feet and was careful as he swooped the child into his arms. However, the moment he took his first step, a sharp, hot pain boiled within him. When he stumbled, the girl's hands deserted her face and slid around his neck and choked off even more of his air supply.
He kept moving.
In his mind he was rushing, but it seemed as if it were taking forever to get out of the apartment. His heart pounded above the roar and crackle of the surrounding fire, so much so that he fleetingly wondered whether the over-active muscle was about to give out.
They had made it to the apartment's entrance when darkness encroached on the edges of his vision. In the building's hallway, flames blanketed the walls.
He kept moving.
A greasy sweat coated his face and dripped into his eyes as he headed toward the staircase. Suddenly, the child felt as if she weighed a ton and his legs threatened to buckle beneath him. He swore he heard shingles popping, rafters creaking and windows exploding all around. They probably only had seconds before the ceiling caved in on them.
They weren't going to make it.
He was going to fail this beautiful little girl because the pain in his back and legs was unbearable now. As if sensing his surrender, the child tightened her hold and started to sob.
Don't give up. Keep moving.
Lincoln wasn't sure if those were his thoughts or if the child was transferring her own by a strange form of telepathy. Miraculously, he was still moving, but he felt dismally inadequate.
He heard a voicea familiar onecalling his name. Out of the roiling smoke, a miracle appeared in full uniform. Before he could respond or react, a painful muscle spasm forced his legs to give up the fight.
They were falling.
Flex blinked back his shock, but managed to catch the brutal force of two falling bodies like a seasoned linebacker. After a few seconds of adjustment, he carried Lincoln over his shoulder and the child on his hip. Being a man with great strength and endurance, Flex trekked back down the stairs, dodging falling plaster, flaming bits of wood and churning shrouds of black smoke.
In no time at all, Flex made good on his promise and returned to his men and the cold December night.
"Somebody get me a paramedic," he shouted and set the child down on the ground first.
A woman raced forward and enfolded the child into her arms. "My beautiful baby. I thought I'd lost you forever."
Flex's heart warmed as he watched the scene from the corner of his eyes and lowered Lincoln's tall body onto the cold ground. Paramedics swarmed and took over his fallen brother's care.
He followed them until they loaded Lincoln into the ambulance and closed the door.
Fire Chief Harold Zahn pounded a heavy hand against Flex's back. "That was a pretty gutsy thing you did in there. You garnered a lot of respect from your new brothers."
Flex turned toward his superior's ruddy features with a lazy smile. "We all do what we can at L-1492, sir."
Chief Zahn's emerald gaze twinkled at him. "That might be true, but I have a feeling I'll be seeing great things from you."
"Thank you, sir. Your confidence is overwhelming."
"Well, it's sure going to be interesting around here seeing how you just rescued the department's superman. He might wake up with a bruised ego. Be prepared."
Flex nodded. "Thanks for the warning."