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The flames raged out of control, consuming Jodi's Steak-house, a popular new restaurant in Ocean City's downtown core. The sparks flickered in the night, illuminating the dark sky in a dance that was both magical and menacing.
Mason Foley, captain at Station Two of the Ocean City Fire Department, led the charge, doing what he did bestbattling the fire. In many ways, he was like a gladiator stepping into a coliseum, knowing that with each battle it was kill or be killed.
And he would do everything in his power to emerge the victor.
At least there was no one inside the building, something that had been determined from the initial 911 call. And when Mason and his team had first gone into the building, they had used their thermal cameras to determine that indeed, there were no bodies inside. Given that it was nearly four in the morning, it hadn't been likely that they would find anyone in the restaurant, but you could never be too sure.
But despite the early hour, there was chaos around him on the downtown streets. People who were up at this time had converged on the scene to watch the firefighters battle the blaze. Others observed from the windows of the condominium across the street.
While some captains did more overseeing and doling out of responsibilities at a fire scene, Mason believed in getting his hands dirty. After giving his team directions, he and Omar Duncan, a friend as well as a colleague, held a hose on the dying flames licking the inside of the building. Firefighters from the ladder truck had vented the roof, and then proceeded to attack the fire with hoses from the aerial ladder.
An hour and a half later, the fire was out. The battle was won. And most importantly, the men and women of Station Two had kept the fire from spreading to the neighboring restaurants.
Mason's body was filled with adrenaline, and though he should be tired, he didn't feel any exhaustion. He pulled his oxygen mask from his face as he exited the building. He walked to the middle of the street and surveyed the damage. Smoke still billowed into the sky, and the once upscale restaurant was now a burned-out shell.
Tyler, one of his best friends and the engineer in charge of the pump truck, approached him and gave him a pat on the shoulder. "Good job, man."
Tyler followed Mason's line of sight to the burned structure, then faced him again. "I know that look. What are you thinking?"
"Second restaurant fire in a week? Same hour of night? I'm wondering if we've got a serial arsonist on our hands."
"The same thought crossed my mind," Tyler said.
Mason walked back toward the building, passing firefighters who were drinking water and opening their heavy jackets to cool down. He headed straight for the restaurant's back door to see if his hunch was right. Amid the debris he found what he had at the other scene, five days earlier. Signs that the back door had been pried open, as well as a discarded gasoline can in the back alley.
"Great," he uttered, exhaling in aggravation. "Definitely arson."
"You think the M.O.'s the same as the last restaurant?"
Mason turned around to find Tyler standing a few feet behind him. "Gas can in the alley." He pointed. "From the scraping and indentation on the door, you can tell that it's been pried open, probably with a crow bar."
"Exactly like the first time," Tyler commented wryly. "What happenedthis guy get food poisoning or something and now he's taking it out on the city?"
The police were already trying to find the person behind the first arson, with no luck thus far. Hopefully, he had made a mistake with this one and left some sort of clue behind. If he had burned himself, he would likely end up at one of the area hospitals or even one outside the city limits.
"We need to track this guy down before he strikes again," Mason said.
"Or her," Tyler corrected.
"Or her," Mason agreed. Two years ago, a female arsonist had started three fires before getting caught and prosecuted. So while uncommon, it couldn't be ruled out.
"If this second fire is any indication, we're going to be real busy until this person is caught." Tyler made a face. "You know as well as I do, arsonists become braver with each fire. It's like they get a high and can't stop."
"Tell me about it," Mason said.
The owners of the restaurant that had been burned down earlier that week claimed that they had gotten threatening letters before the fire. Three letters over a span of the four weeks since they had opened that had warned them to close down and leave. The owners hadn't heeded the warnings, not after having invested their life's savings into the business. Then the restaurant had been burned to the ground, leaving the owners devastated.
Police were following up on leads. The suspicion being that another business owner in the area was possibly behind the arson. The letters were being analyzed for any DNA evidence, and time would tell if they held any further clues.
With another restaurant burned to the ground and all signs pointing to arson from what Mason could tell, the idea that the culprit was another business ownerlikely a restaurateurseemed even more likely. But one could be sure.
Though early, a call to the owners of this establishment would soon take place to inform them that their restaurant had been destroyed. He wondered if the owners of this place had also gotten threatening letters.
"The scene is secure," Tyler began, "and the Fire Marshall will be here come morning. Time to head back to the station."
Mason nodded absently. Although there was a part of him that wanted to stay and examine the building, even be there when the owners arrived, he had to get his team back to the fire hall. Besides, the Fire Marshall's office would do the official investigation as to the cause of the fire. It was just that Mason was determined to find answers, which would lead to justice for the victims.
"Nothing else you can do here, man," Tyler said to him. "And once our shift is over, I don't want to hear that you came back to the scene, searching for clues."
Mason faced Tyler, who was more like a brother to him. Someone he knew would always have his back. Even if that meant intervening when he believed that Mason would spread himself too thin for the sake of a fire investigation.
"The Fire Marshall's office is perfectly capable, and you don't want to step on toes like you did last year."
Last year, Mason had inserted himself into the investigation of a warehouse fire, and had been able to find a clue in the debris that was missed. His goal had been to solve the arson, but the Fire Marshall had seen Mason as trying to one-up him, and it caused tension.
"Roberts got over it," Mason said.
"Still. Leave it to the right department. We've done our job. You might even want to spend some of your free time going on a date."
Mason scoffed. "Just because you're happily involved doesn't mean we all have to be."
"I'm just saying. Get a hobby. Find a girlfriend who lives in town. Because Kenyashe's always off jet-setting, so she can't be here to distract you."
"And she's not really my girlfriend."
"That's my point. You need to find someone. I know you, man. You have a tendency to work way too hard. The fire's out."
Mason nodded. "All right. Job well done. Let's get the guys back."
As he started back to the street with Tyler, Mason's mind was still on the situation at hand. He planned to be involved in as much of the investigation as possible on his end, no matter what Tyler said. He would do whatever it took to see the culprit caught.
As a firefighter, arson was truly the worst part of the job. Because it was a crime that destroyed people's lives. Sure, some arson cases were instances of insurance fraud, and typically in those cases no one got hurt. But Mason had seen fire used as a weapon. A weapon of hatred, a weapon of revenge, or as possibly in this case, a weapon of intimidation.
Nearly twenty years ago, fire had killed Mason's mother and his five-year-old brother. Even two decades after their deaths, Mason wondered if the fire had been arson, though it had been ruled an accident. But what had troubled Mason at the time and still haunted him today was the fact that there had been no official cause. Not a stove left on, not a cigarette burning on the sofa, not a curling iron plugged in and forgotten in the bathroom. There had been no real answers.
For Mason, who had been away at summer camp at the time, learning that his mother and brother had been killed had not only crushed him, but it had become a driving force in his life. That tragedy led him to a career in the field of fire and rescue.
He hadn't been able to save his mother and brother, and though he knew it wasn't his fault, he hadn't been able to forgive himself. Maybe he couldn'tnot without real answers as to what caused the fire. What if the cause had been something that he, a fifteen-year-old boy at the time, would have been alerted to? His mother had often taken sleeping pills to calm her anxious mind, and once the fire had started she hadn't had a chance. But had he been there, Mason believed wholeheartedly that he would have smelled the smoke, heard the alarm and gotten his family to safety.
His father should have been home at the time of the fire, but instead had been out drinking with friends.
Mason flinched when he felt a hand clamp down on his shoulder. "Hey, you all right?"
Mason faced Tyler. "Yeah," he said. But he felt the tightness in his chest, one that had nothing to do with the toxic fumes the fire had produced.
Some people wondered why he had become a firefighter, given that he had been a prodigy of sorts at a young age. At the age of nineteen, Mason had been an NBA top draft pick, with a hefty contract. The eight-figure deal was the kind people could only dream of. However, five years into his career, he had walked away from it all. A controversial decision that die-hard basketball fans still talked about.
For Mason, it had been easy. Basketball had been something he was good at, but it hadn't been the burning passion in his heart.
Ever since losing his mother and brother, his heart told him that he should do something to help people. In a way, by battling every fire, he tried to atone for the fact that he wished so desperately he could turn back the clock and save his mother and brother on that terrible summer day.
Gritting his teeth, he tried to force the painful memory away. But it wasn't going anywhere. It was always there, like a physical wound that would never heal. He had learned to live with it, but the guilt prevailed.
His best friends and everyone else he knew had told him that it wasn't his fault, and rationally he knew that. He'd been a kid, needing to get away from a turbulent home by going to summer camp, the one highlight of the summer. But in retrospect, he hated that he had left his mother and little brother alone with his father, whom he'd known had always drank too much. If he hadn't gone to summer camp, wouldn't he have been able to save them that night?
It was the "what if" that continued to haunt him.
"The hoses are back on the truck," Tyler said. "The guys are ready."
Mason nodded. Then he called out to his team, "Stephenson, Eisler, Duncan. We're ready to roll out of here."
* * *
Sabrina Crawford stared at the photo of Mason Foley on the screen of her Mac computer. It was a candid shot of him, taken while he was standing over a stove in the firehouse. He had been caught midlaugh, and the photo seemed to capture a confident and playful nature about him.
He was the next firefighter scheduled to come in for a photo shoot for the calendar she was working on with the Ocean City Fire Department. As she had done before each firefighter came into her studio, Sabrina checked out a candid shot of the man in order to get ideas on how best to utilize him in the shoot. Usually something about the man's eyes, smile or expression would lead to inspiration in terms of what kind of pictures she would take of him.
But right now, her mind wasn't coming up with any ideas. How could it, when all she could think about was the letter she'd received?
Glancing at the letter, which she had discarded on her desk, Sabrina swallowed. A painful lump lodged in her throat as she picked the letter up and decided to read it a second time.
Sabrina, I am taking the time to write this letter because you are clueless. Why on earth would you think that I would ever want to hear from you? You have done enough to destroy my family. The fact that you can't even figure that out shows the kind of person you are. Selfish and horrible.
For once in your life, think about someone other than yourself! You need to stay away from me and my family. Forever. Never try to contact me again, you pitiful excuse for a human being. If you don't heed this warning, I will have to involve the authorities.
I am being as nice as I possibly can given your harassment, but none of us is interested in having anything to do with you.
You should never have been born!
Sabrina felt the same way she had when she'd read the letter half an hour earlieras though someone had ripped her heart out of her chest. Because although the letter was unsigned, she knew who had sent it. And after simply trying to reach out to her, this awful letter was the last thing Sabrina had expected. The words made her out to be some sort of evil person. And even though she knew she wasn't the words still stung.
Especially the part about how she never should have been born. Given the circumstances under which she had come into the world that comment truly hurt.
Sabrina picked up the tension ball on her desk hoping that the stress from the back of her neck would transfer to the ball. All she had done was reach out to her sister on Facebook. She hadn't expected such a painful and rude rejection.
Though maybe she should have. Because not once in her thirty-three years had Julia and Patrickher half siblingsever reached out to her. Sabrina was certain that they hadn't known of her existence for several yearsas she hadn't known about them. But for the past fifteen years at least, they knew of her. Knew of her, but wanted nothing to do with her.