Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Burned Too Hot Excerpt


Chapter One

No oxygen.
David Lund's gut clenched. No matter how long he'd been a firefighter, gasping for air in a vacuum always brought the same, visceral, thoughtless panic—then a whoosh from the SCBA filled the void. His breathing settled into a rhythm.
Whoosh in.
Whoosh out.
Vision limited by face mask and helmet, Lund turned to Kyle Blaski. "Ready?"
Still adjusting his air flow, the young firefighter nodded.
In this middle-of-the-night house fire where victims were likely inside, Lund would prefer to go in with a veteran like Dempsey. But thanks to an accident at one of the rash of small arson-set fires in recent weeks, Dempsey was limited to duties he could perform with a sprained wing.
 At least what the young guy lacked in experience, he made up for in enthusiasm, showing up to every one of the recent fire calls, usually arriving before everyone but Bix Johnson. And it didn't hurt that the kid was strong as a mule.
A second truck screamed up the street and then a third. Soon the place would be swarming with firefighters, but there was no time to wait. Not when a fire doubled in size every fifteen to thirty seconds.
The clock was ticking.
He and Blaski headed for the house, the teams covering the basement and first floor following behind. Adrenaline dumped into his bloodstream, and the little tremor that said his body knew this was life or death hummed through his body. Too relaxed and he wasn't taking the situation seriously. Too tense and his hands shook , his reactions turned sluggish, mind dull. Over the years, he'd learned to handle the stress, compartmentalizing emotions, balancing himself, striking just the right note between fear and calm.
On the other hand, Blaski seemed nervous.
"We got this, man. Trust your training."
"Damn straight." Blaski said, nodding like a bobble head.
Lund looked back in time to see a car jolt to a stop behind the security tape strung across the driveway. A woman jumped out and raced for the house, until she was intercepted by Dempsey. Light brown hair, pretty, she thrashed against the grizzled firefighter's chest, tears streaking her face.
There was someone inside all right. At least she thought so. Time to get them out.
Lund pulled open the door.
Smoke and heat swept out in a wave. Coats lined the right side of the small landing. Straight ahead, concrete stairs stretched into the basement. On the left, two steps led up to the main floor and into smoke, thick and black.
 Movies and television depict structure fires with dramatic shots of flame. Although flame was there, running up the walls and spreading along the ceiling, in real life smoke was the devil a firefighter most often had to face down.
The devil that most often killed.
Lund took the two steps and dropped to the floor, ceramic tile hard under his knees. One hand tracing the wall, he moved at a crawl. Blaski fell in behind, his right hand keeping contact with Lund's boot and his left leg sweeping out into the room, feeling for what couldn't be seen.
Lund felt his way along the side of a refrigerator and a row of kitchen cabinets before reaching a corner, the hard tile under his knees suddenly replaced with pile carpet. A barely discernable glow of flame cut through the smoke at the back of the house. Lund noted the location and direction it was moving then followed around the corner to the right, his gloved fingers skimming built in bookshelves and steps leading to the second floor.
"Stairs," he called to Blaski.
Wasting no time, he started up, the kid on his heels. A child gate spanned the top of the staircase, and Lund ran his hand over its top rail until he located the latch.
Opening it, he moved through, then Blaski took position behind him, and they searched the landing. The smoke was thicker up here, leaving them to grope in the sweltering dark, even the bright lights firefighters had set up outside choked to a dim shimmer. Lund pushed a loveseat out of the way, groping behind it and underneath.
Satisfied the landing was clear, they headed down the hall to the bedrooms. With no furniture to contend with, they moved quickly through the narrow space, blind and on their hands and knees. Seconds and Lund reached the first room. "Door," he called out.
Following the wall around the jamb, they crawled inside.
"Is anyone in here?" he yelled. Holding his breath, he listened for an answer.
His respirator resuming its whoosh, he moved on, right hand tracing the wall, left sweeping the darkness. A chest of drawers, the leg of a piece of furniture, the drop gate of a crib. Lund pulled himself to his feet and swiped a hand over the mattress.
Nothing but a blanket.
In Lund's experience, frightened children often hid from the smoke and darkness in a place where they felt safe. If the little one wasn't in his bed, he was curled up somewhere else. They had to find where. Fast.
 He dropped to the floor, checked under the crib, then moved on to the rest of the room. A diaper pail. A changing table. A bookshelf filled with books. Another filled with bins of big Legos and wooden blocks. He announced the closed and unbroken window to Blaski then encountered what was likely a closet.
He opened it and followed the perimeter of the tiny space. Except for a collection of stuffed animals and a jumble of plastic cars, it was empty.
Where was the kid?
Lund continued the search. Methodical. Thorough.
Stick to the wall.
Follow procedure.
Every hall. Every nook. Every closet.
Any place a frightened child might hide.
Lund crawled back down the hall, Blaski's hand still on his boot. He reached another door, bathroom this time, tiny. Sink, toilet, tub, closet, and they were back in the hall, on to the next room.
"Door." Lund turned into a bedroom. Hard wood floors. Bigger this time. He combed a walk-in closet filled with shoes and clothing, a woman's and a man's. Resuming his trek around the perimeter, he examined around, under, and on top of everything.
"I have a stuffed animal here," Blaski shouted. "Center of the room."
Lund continued forward, his hand hitting the side of a platform bed. No space to hide underneath. He rose to his knees and ran a hand over the sheets, touching pillow, touching flesh. The hair was short, and he could feel the rasp of a beard against his gloves. Under the blankets, the man's chest rose and fell in shallow breaths.
Still alive.
"Adult male. Unconscious." Lund said, both to Blaski and into his radio. He reached over the guy, rifling the rumpled sheets, expecting to find a little body.
"There's a child, too. A boy, two years old." The chief's voice sounded over Lund's radio.
"Still looking." Based on the house's exterior and his knowledge of floor plans for homes built around the same time, Lund would bet there was a master bath left.
"The kid's not here," Blaski shouted. "We looked."
"Not everywhere."
"Lund, we got to—"
"Give me a second."
"We don't have time."
Lund had thought Blaski could hold it together. He'd been wrong. "Give him oxygen and pull up the edges of this sheet. We'll use it to get him to the stairs. I'll be right back."
"Pull up the sheet, Blaski."
"Yeah. Okay. Sorry."
Lund scrambled away from the bed, skimming the wall and swiping the empty space with his foot. The stuffed toy in the middle of the master bedroom was telling. The boy had to be here, had to have found a hiding place in his parents' room.
Didn't he?
Lund swept the darkness, praying his boot or hand would run into a little body. Reaching the master bathroom door, he continued inside.
Vanity, toilet, whirlpool tub, shower.
No boy.
Shit, shit, shit.
Lund returned to the bed, rechecking areas he'd already searched. They were running out of options. All they had left was a trip back down the hall. Unless there was a cubby hole or closet along the way, the child was not upstairs.
Or they had already passed over his hiding place.
Blaski had thrown the comforter off the man and pulled up the sheet. The guy was big, easily two-hundred-forty pounds, not going to be easy to move. Lund took a hold of the top corners and gathered them tight above the man's head. He could sense Blaski moving at the foot, although all he could see was darkness.
"Ready," the young firefighter called.
"All right. Lift."
They hoisted the man in his 600-thread-count sling and set him on the hardwood floor. Then Lund started moving for the door, dragging his burden behind. He stopped to clear a shallow closet in the hall, one last possible hiding place.
"The kid must be downstairs," Blaski yelled.
Lund wanted to think that, wanted to believe it was possible, that Johnson and Sandoval already had him safely outside. But when he reached the gate at the top of the stairs, he knew he was fooling himself.
He must have missed something. A nook, a cranny, a small space. The little boy had to be here somewhere. Lund would get this guy out and come back.
 They started down, moving slowly, the man half slung, half dragged between them. Sweat dripped from Lund's forehead, trickling down his cheeks and stinging his eyes. Glass shattered at the far end of the living room, and Lund could hear the crackle of fire over the whoosh of his own breathing. At the base of the stairs, he abandoned the blanket, instead grabbing the victim under the armpits, his hands meeting across the man's chest. Walking backwards, he relied on Blaski to guide him through the kitchen and along the wall of cabinets.
By the time they reached the entry hall, a cramp seized low in Lund's back, the awkward posture taking its toll. He made it around the corner and down the two shallow steps then stumbled backward out the door.
He hadn't even made it down the porch steps before other firefighters were taking the victim, carrying him to the EMTs. Lund detached his regulator, turned off his air, and bent at the waist, bracing his hands on his knees, stretching out the muscles in his back.
The scene outside had changed since he and Blaski had gone in, the yard fast becoming an icy mud hole. Two crews directed hoses on the far end of the house. More trucks had arrived, an ambulance parked on the front lawn, and county sheriff's department cars positioned on the hill below, blocking the street. Red lights pulsed off leafless tree limbs overhead, making the lantern-style lights lining Walnut Street dim in comparison. At the bottom of the drive, a familiar unmarked Ford Taurus pulled past the deputies.
Lund paused—needing to see the police chief emerge, blond hair pulled back like she meant business, eyes sharp and shoulders squared—just a glimpse before he plunged back into the fire, a quick exchange of glances, something.
The driver's door didn't open.
Behind Lund, Blaski took off his helmet and hood and let his mask dangle around his neck, his acne-pocked skin shining with perspiration, his breath fogging in the cold, March air. "Think he'll make it?"
"Hope so." Lund had done all he could for the man. Now he could only focus on the child. There had to be something he missed, a place he hadn't thought to search. He crossed the soggy earth to the command center, mud and brown blades of grass clinging to his boots.
Fire Chief Fruehauf glanced up from his radio. "Good work, Lund. Get hydrated."
"Johnson and Sandoval find the little boy?" He glanced around, scanning the fray for Bix Johnson's distinctive carrot top, usually bright enough to rival the emergency lights.
"No. They didn't find a trace of him. Neither did the third team."
Lund swore under his breath. "I need to go back in."
"Fire's too hot. Structure's getting unstable."
Lund shook his head. "Just ten minutes, Chief."
"Too risky."
"I can't let a kid die." He spun around and started for the house, initiating his air flow and locking his regulator back into his mask.
"Lund. Damn it."
A crack sounded loud enough for Lund to hear it over the initial whoosh of his own breath. The far end of the structure's roof sagged.
"Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!" came over the radio.
Lund kept going. His list of those to save had just grown longer.
Police Chief Val Ryker slammed the car door closed behind her, pulse jumping. She'd heard the mayday call, saw the firefighters respond, the reflective bands on their uniforms flashing like those plastic glow sticks kids wore on Halloween. A man was down, hurt, and her only thought was finding David Lund.
When Val reached the command center at the top of the hill, the Fire Chief held up a hand.
"Okay, gotcha, gotcha," he said over the radio. "I have Reedsburg EMS standing by."
Val’s stomach hitched. First responders faced injury or death every day. It was part of the job. As police chief of the tiny town of Lake Loyal, Wisconsin, Val understood that more than most. But she and Lund had been close, and although the relationship had been fleeting, Val cared about him. More than she should.
She didn't know how she'd react if he was one of the firefighters injured.
"The wife was at work. Got here right before the husband was pulled from the house unconscious. He's with EMS."
Val tried to focus on Chief Fruehauf's words and the real reason she'd broken every speed limit to get here. "The Tiedemann's have a child… around two years old. How is he?"
"You know the family?"
She nodded, not wanting to get into exactly how.
"Then, I'm sorry. The boy… he wasn't found."
Val stared at the house; the crumpled roof, billowing smoke, and flame still feeding on the siding of the west-facing wall.
The boy… he wasn't…
Her stomach hollowed out.
The past fifteen months had been tense in Lake Loyal, the town holding its breath. The trial of Dixon Hess had stretched on for weeks. But finally—just as the winter chill had started to lift—the jury had come back with the prayed for guilty verdict.
The whole town had let out a sigh of relief. And now in the bleak wind of March, they waited for Hess to be sentenced and shipped off to one of the maximum security prisons in much the same way as watching for crocus blooms to nudge above the soil and spring's first glimpse of a robin.
The last thing Lake Loyal needed was another tragedy, especially something like this. Val wished more than anything that she could have prevented it.
"Where's Carla Tiedemann?" Val asked the fire chief.
"On the way to the hospital with her husband. Had to be sedated."
Val didn't have children of her own, but if her niece was in a burning house, she would have to be sedated, too. Hell, she would probably have to be put down.
"That shrink went with her."
"The one who runs those first responder support groups. JoAnn Pender. Guess the Tiedemanns are patients of hers."
At least Carla had someone to lean on, and a psychologist wasn't a bad choice. Val would send an officer to the hospital as well.
"Hot damn," Fruehauf said. "Here they come."
Val spun back to the house just in time to see the door open and two firefighters emerge, assisting a third. Holding her breath, she watched them make their way to the Reedsburg EMS. The names emblazoned across the backs of their turnout coats caught the light, reflective like the stripes on arms, legs, and torsos.
She focused on one name.
The firefighters handed off their injured colleague and shed helmets and facemasks. Lund's eyes found Val. Red lights pulsed off his face. Sweat dampened his dark hair and trickled down one side of his forehead. He looked depleted, raw, and Val had to look away to keep from going to him.
"David Lund was on one of the search teams?" she asked the fire chief.
"Second floor. He pulled Tiedemann out."
Saved the father but not the son. No wonder she could see his pain from here.
When Lund reached them, his first words were for Fruehauf. "Chief, I've got to go back in."
"Are you out of your goddamn mind?" Fruehauf thrust out his barrel chest. "You saw what just happened. The whole roof is coming down. You rush back in, and you're forcing the rest of us to save you."
Another crash sounded from the house.
Lund stared at the structure, arms limp at his sides.
Val sucked in a breath of smoky air, her chest tight. "Is there a chance the toddler got out on his own?"
Lund shook his head. "The child gate was latched."
"Child gate?"
"At the top of the stairs. No way a kid that small could open it himself."
"We'll search the forest anyway," Val managed to say. "And canvass the neighborhood."
Val wanted to touch him, to hold him, to give him some kind of comfort, not that it would do any good. After all, she knew Lund, knew how failing to save his ex-wife haunted him, knew how responsible he felt, and knew how much pride he took in serving the citizens of his town, many of them life-long friends. And now he'd failed to rescue a child from a burning house…
But it could be worse.
Because Lund didn't know who that little boy really was. And eventually Val would have to tell him.

No comments: