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911. Police or fire?"
"Fire! The abandoned house on the corner of Taylor and Third has smoke coming out and there's someone trapped inside!"
Station 15 came to life in a rush of activity as the alarm sounded. Flynn O'Shay rolled from his cot with his fellow firefighters and donned his gear with practiced speed. There was no discussion, no grumbling about the hour. An abandoned house fire at three in the morning had them all thinking the same thing. Their arsonist had struck again.
If someone was trapped inside, however, it was a whole new situation. Their guy might have finally made a mistake.
Two in and two out was the county standard for search-and-rescue. Tonight Flynn and his partner, Carey Rineman, would be the two going into the burning building while Frenchy and Lew had their backs. That is, if the place wasn't already fully involved by the time they got there.
Houses around Taylor and Third were sprawling Victorians over a century old. Packed tightly together side by side, they posed a serious hazard, particularly with the wind up as it was tonight. An abandoned house would be dry as tinder. Flynn shared a sour look with Carey as the siren screamed its warning to the few cars in the big engine's path.
This section of town was undergoing a revival. Many of the old houses had been or were in the process of being restored to their former glory.
The house on the corner wasn't one of them.
A badly twisted metal fence encased an overgrown yard that had become a dumping ground for all sorts of debris. The once stately mansion was now a dilapidated eyesore with peeling, grayed paint, sagging porches and boarded-over doors and windows.
Swearing under his breath, Flynn reached for his tank. Ben and Hal were on the ground starting the line to a nearby hydrant. A plume of thick smoke trickled up from behind a plywood-covered window. This was the lieutenant's shift and he hurried forward to open the front gate only to discover it was rusted shut. By the time Flynn and Carey reached him, the gate was no longer an issue.
But the yard was.
They had to battle their way through the dense underbrush. Flynn eyed the plywood-covered doors and windows. Historic or not, someone should have torn this disaster down a long time ago. Large, shapeless bushes and a forest of unpruned trees were surrounded by weeds, broken bottles, rusting cans and other trash.
Rose bushes gone wild lurked beneath a tangle of vines, tugging at the firemen's heavy pants as they fought their way to the sagging front porch.
Flynn listened as the lieutenant barked orders in his ear over the radio. Only the right-hand side of the building appeared to be involved at the moment. Lew moved past them with a crowbar to rip the plywood from the front door. Inside, flames flared in glee at the influx of fresh air. Their color was enough to confirm suspicions that this was another arson.
Straight ahead lay the staircase but they turned toward the fire first. Remnants of discarded furniture had been left scattered behind some time ago. A battered sofa provided plenty of starter fuel. Flames and smoke sprang from it to creep up the flowered wallpaper at its back. No sign of anyone. Flames gobbled a scattering of old newspapers on the floor.
They covered the downstairs quickly. All the rooms were empty.
Smoke rushed upward and so did they. Flynn prayed the wooden stairs weren't rotted and would hold their weight.
"It's really moving," Carey muttered under his breath.
They reached the landing and turned to the room directly over the flames. There was little time left to scan for victims. The fire was spreading with wicked speed.
Flames broke through the floor in the room over the fire, sending them back to the hall. The heat became oppressive as they crossed to the room opposite, Carey going right, Flynn left.
"Clear," Carey's voice repeated in his ear.
"Clear," Flynn agreed.
Flames began licking up that wall as well. They were nearly out of time. Dense smoke swirled to fill the space, growing blacker by the second. The snapping crackle of the blaze was audible even over the sound of their breathing apparatus.
On the floor in what had obviously been another bedroom, an old mattress piled with rags jutted out from the wall. Perfect. More fuel for the hungry flames. About to turn back, Flynn stumbled over something and went to his knees.
He started to rise and stopped. A small, bare human foot protruded from the pile of rags. He stared in shock and a jolt of adrenaline sent him stumbling forward. He touched the appendage to be sure it was real.
"I've got a victim!"
The rags proved to be a long dress of some floaty material worn by a slender slip of a woman with long hair. Flynn called out the location as he bent to lift her. She didn't stir, not even when he picked her up. He wondered if she was already dead.
Carey tapped his arm. "We gotta go!"
Flynn nodded. Smoke curled around them insidiously, blacking out the room. Carey led the way toward the door and was quickly enveloped. Flynn could no longer see his partner, but he kept moving in the same direction. Even before he bumped into Carey's broad back, he realized they were too late.
The radio crackled in his ear. "Flynn, Carey, pull out! Pull out! We have flames going up the stairs," Lew yelled.
There was nothing to see but dense smoke. "We're on the second floor, back of the building left side," Carey responded. "We have an unconscious victim. We're going to need an escape route through a window."
"We're on it."
But, of course, he and Carey wouldn't be able to see the window even if it hadn't been boarded over.
Pushing aside his fight-or-flight reaction, Flynn tried to relax and breathe evenly, wishing he could wipe at the sweat running down his face. Frenchy and Lew would get them out. This being a corner room, there were likely windows at their back and left side.
Carey bumped his arm. "I've got the outside wall. We'll use it as a guide to the windows. Stay on me."
Brushing the back of Carey's suit with his free hand, Flynn followed his partner step by cautious step as the flames gobbled the structure around them with incredible speed. How much accelerant had the bastard used?
Without warning, Carey stumbled hard and went down. Flynn barely managed to avoid sprawling on top of him. He staggered to the side nearly dropping the woman as he tried to keep his footing.
"Floorboard gave. My foot's stuck."
"Mayday," Flynn called. "Carey's trapped. Corner bedroom near the back."
He reached down with his free hand. "Can you pull yourself out hanging on to me?"
"Yes."And he groaned when he tried to pull free. "No!
I'm wedged tight. Go! Get the victim out!" His friend sucked in a sharp breath. "I think I broke something."
Flynn swore. A sliver of flame broke through the wall across from them.
"Lew? We're in trouble here!"
"Stand by. We're on our way in." Carey tugged at his wedged foot. A wider tongue of flame licked up the wall at their back. They swore as one.
He hated that Carey was right. Flynn had to get the woman out. If she weren't already dead, she soon would be. He headed toward the reassuring sound of axes on wood. The room lightened for a brief second as a plywood cover was ripped free outside.
Glass shattered. Smoke billowed toward it in a rush to be free. Flynn lumbered toward the opening, half afraid the floor under him would give at any minute. Frenchy filled the window. Flynn handed the woman to him and turned back.
"We'll get him," Lew's voice said in his ear. "You go!" But Flynn was already trying to retrace his steps. He couldn't see a thing and nearly stepped on Carey.
"I'm free," Carey told him, panting hard. He accepted Flynn's help to his feet and swore in obvious pain. A tongue of fire whipped up through the hole where his boot had been.
"The floor's going to go," Lew shouted.
Flynn felt the give of hot wood under his feet. With a firm grip under Carey's arm, he started back. Frenchy appeared on Carey's other side to help support the stumbling man. They made it to the window where Lew guided Carey out onto the sagging back-porch roof.
Inside, the center of the floor sprouted flames. Part of the floor collapsed under the intense heat. Water spewed into the room from a hose at a side window. Flynn scrambled out through the window over the porch, Frenchy on his heels. The porch roof also felt dangerously soft underfoot.
"Go!" Frenchy yelled.
Flynn bolted forward and plunged through a weakened section. His leg and shoulder took the brunt of his landing as he and that section of roofing came to rest on the back porch. Lew appeared at his side, tugging on his arm.
Dazed, Flynn made it to his feet and staggered off the porch. He managed Frenchy's name.
"We got him," Lew assured. "Paul's taking him down the side."
Flynn yanked off his mask and sucked in fresh air thankfully as Lew led him to the rescue vehicle. The victim lay on her back in the grass. Paramedics, Arlene and Murray, were working over her. Flynn paused to gaze down at her delicate features covered in thick black soot.
"Pretty little thing," Lew remarked.
Pretty was an understatement. Beneath the soot she appeared fragile, almost porcelain-doll lovely. She reminded him of a fairy-tale princess on the cover of some book.
A very dirty princess. "Now what was someone like her doing in there, I'd like to know," Lew grumbled.
An excellent question.
Flynn watched them work on her, willing her to live while wishing there was something more he could do to help.
"I should have got her out sooner."
"Man, you guys barely got out at all. Count your blessings."
"I do. Thanks, Lew."
He let Lew guide him away. Standing suddenly lost its appeal. His legs complied as Lew pressed him down on the ground.
"Let them be the judge of that."
The new voice jerked his head up. Flynn tried to focus on the lined features of the battalion chief, who stood over him. It took his groggy head a long moment to process the identification, yet there was no mistaking that craggy face. He let his gaze sweep the scene. They'd called a box alarm and the area was flooded with responders and their vehicles.
The wind gusted steadily, sending sparks drifting in multiple directions. Brush near the side of the house had ignited as the big Victorian swelled with smoke and flames. The house was fully engulfed now. He could feel the intense heat clear over here by the engine.
"Anyone else inside?" the chief demanded.
"We cleared most of the house, sir, but I don't know for sure."
The man nodded and turned to speak with the lieutenant.
"You all right?" Lew demanded.
"They think his ankle's broken."
Flynn grimaced. "What about the victim?" He indicated the woman being loaded onto a stretcher. Long, soot-coated blondish hair spilled over the side.
"Unconscious, but alive. She took in a lot of smoke." The battalion chief turned back to him. "She a victim or the arsonist?"
Flynn shrugged and wished he hadn't as his shoulder twinged. "I'd say victim. She was unconscious on a mattress when I found her."
He scowled. "You'll need to talk to the fire investigator."
"Figured as much," Flynn agreed.
The chief moved away and Murray and Arlene shouldered Lew aside. "Let's have a look at you."
"We're taking you to go to Community Hospital to get checked out," Murray told him.
"No need. I'm fine."
"Lieutenant's orders," they chorused.
"Okay, but I'm not lying on any gurney."
Murray grinned evilly.
"Who's your sleeping beauty?" Arlene questioned.
"She sure isn't from this part of town. That was an expensive designer evening gown she was wearing."
Flynn focused onArlene's long face. "Evening gown?" "Yeah, you know, formal dances, that sort of thing?" "I didn't know women still wore evening gowns outside of television."
"You move in the wrong circles, O'Shay. Now if you were rich or famous.