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.
limited by face mask and helmet, Lund turned to Kyle Blaski. "Ready?"
adjusting his air flow, the young firefighter nodded.
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.
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.
clock was ticking.
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.
the other hand, Blaski seemed nervous.
got this, man. Trust your training."
straight." Blaski said, nodding like a bobble head.
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.
was someone inside all right. At least she thought so. Time to get them out.
pulled open the door.
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.
devil that most often killed.
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.
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.
he called to Blaski.
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
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
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.
the wall around the jamb, they crawled inside.
anyone in here?" he yelled. Holding his breath, he listened for an answer.
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
but a blanket.
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.
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.
was the kid?
continued the search. Methodical. Thorough.
to the wall.
hall. Every nook. Every closet.
place a frightened child might hide.
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.
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.
have a stuffed animal here," Blaski shouted. "Center of the
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
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.
a child, too. A boy, two years old." The chief's voice sounded over Lund's
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
kid's not here," Blaski shouted. "We looked."
we got to—"
me a second."
don't have time."
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."
up the sheet, Blaski."
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.
swept the darkness, praying his boot or hand would run into a little body.
Reaching the master bathroom door, he continued inside.
toilet, whirlpool tub, shower.
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.
they had already passed over his hiding place.
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.
the young firefighter called.
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.
kid must be downstairs," Blaski yelled.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
driver's door didn't open.
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?"
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.
Chief Fruehauf glanced up from his radio. "Good work, Lund. Get hydrated."
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
They didn't find a trace of him. Neither did the third team."
swore under his breath. "I need to go back in."
too hot. Structure's getting unstable."
shook his head. "Just ten minutes, Chief."
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.
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!" came over the radio.
kept going. His list of those to save had just grown longer.
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.
Val reached the command center at the top of the hill, the Fire Chief held up a
gotcha, gotcha," he said over the radio. "I have Reedsburg EMS standing
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.
didn't know how she'd react if he was one of the firefighters injured.
wife was at work. Got here right before the husband was pulled from the house
unconscious. He's with EMS."
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?"
know the family?"
nodded, not wanting to get into exactly how.
I'm sorry. The boy… he wasn't found."
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…
stomach hollowed out.
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
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.
last thing Lake Loyal needed was another tragedy, especially something like
this. Val wished more than anything that she could have prevented it.
Carla Tiedemann?" Val asked the fire chief.
the way to the hospital with her husband. Had to be sedated."
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.
shrink went with her."
one who runs those first responder support groups. JoAnn Pender. Guess the
Tiedemanns are patients of hers."
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.
damn," Fruehauf said. "Here they come."
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.
focused on one name.
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.
Lund was on one of the search teams?" she asked the fire chief.
floor. He pulled Tiedemann out."
the father but not the son. No wonder she could see his pain from here.
Lund reached them, his first words were for Fruehauf. "Chief, I've got to
go back in."
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."
crash sounded from the house.
stared at the structure, arms limp at his sides.
sucked in a breath of smoky air, her chest tight. "Is there a chance the
toddler got out on his own?"
shook his head. "The child gate was latched."
the top of the stairs. No way a kid that small could open it himself."
search the forest anyway," Val managed to say. "And canvass the
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…
it could be worse.
Lund didn't know who that little boy really was. And eventually Val would have
to tell him.