Knox Norville was in the middle of chowing down on his microwave lasagna when the alarm went off. From experience, he only listened with half an ear as he and the other members of his crew dashed for the apparatus bay to suit up. At this point his job was to suit up and load up. He’d find out later where the emergency was once they arrived at the scene.
He was shrugging on his coat when a second alarm went off. Grabbing his hat, he ran for the ladder truck. “Anyone have any idea where we’re going?” he yelled to the other two men riding along with him.
“I heard something about Delfi Street, but that’s all I heard,” Biscoy called back.
“Delfi’s over in the warehouse district,” Martine remarked.
Knox grinned. “I’ve got five bucks says it’s arson.”
“Forget it!” Martine countered. “I know better than to take that sucker bet!”
Throwing himself into the seat, he glanced over at Biscoy. “Wouldn’t you know we’d get called at the end of the shift,” the man groused.
Knox chuckled. “At least we’re getting to see a little action. I was starting to get bored.”
They remained silent as the vehicle rushed through the dark streets. It was a beautiful April night, with temperatures in the sixties, a cloudless sky, and half a moon shining down on them. Knox observed the traffic pulling over to the side to let the trucks go through. Already dark and not yet eight o’clock, Knox observed to himself. Up until now, this had been one of the quietest shifts he’d ever worked in his nine-year history with the city’s fire department. But they knew the odds were against them not getting a call. They were lucky to have had it easy today. There were plenty of times when he’d started his shift at a fire, and never stopped until his relief showed up. Or he’d collapsed from exhaustion.
He spotted the flames coming from the four-story building blocks before they reached it, and immediately recognized it as being one of the many abandoned mills that dominated the south side. After those businesses moved overseas, some developers had tried to convert the large, spacious structures into condos and apartments. Some were successful, but the majority never made it. Since then, these places were condemned, although the city planners never got around to demolishing them. And that gave the homeless, the druggies, and most of the destitute a place to move in rent free.
Well, not rent free, he noted. Crime was at its peak in this part of town. More muggings. More assaults. More murders. More robberies. More of the worst of humanity. The people who called this part of Rall City home may not be paying rent in terms of money, but they definitely were paying for it in other ways.
When the truck pulled up, Knox noticed two other departments in the vicinity. “Think this thing’ll become a four alarm?” Biscoy yelled over to him.
Knox eyed the severity of the fire. “It will if it hasn’t already!”
The fire appeared to have originated near the roof. Flames bellowed out of the fourth-floor windows, lighting the area. The red and blue lights from the emergency vehicles and police units added to it, throwing kaleidoscopes of color against the surrounding buildings. Barricades were being erected as several uniformed police held back onlookers and the curious. A couple of EMS vehicles were parked against the curb as techs tended to what appeared to be evacuees from the burning structure.
“Biscoy! Martine! Take the cans! Norville! Grab the irons!” Captain Sands hollered as their truck came to a halt.
Knox hustled to grab his tools and trotted over to where the fire captain was giving orders to others of the rescue crew. The man pointed to where a trio of hoses were dousing the building and directed his gaze to the second floor.
“We’ve been told there’s people still inside! Norville, you take that entrance.”
Nodding, Knox adjusted his mask over his face and rushed for the side door that stood ajar. A stairwell was visible inside. Turning on his flashlight, he began climbing up to the next level.
“Arriving on the second floor. So far no one.”
The smoke here wasn’t thick. Reaching the door to that level, he stepped back and used the Halligan hook to grab the handle and pull the door open. When he didn’t detect a rush of air or flames coming at him, Knox exited onto the floor.
It was evident this floor had once been used to house the mill’s offices, but there was no semblance left of its original intent. The place was practically gutted. Graffiti generously decorated the walls, and there were no doors to any of the rooms. If anyone lived up here, they did so with very little privacy.
“Norville to base. I’m on the second floor. Going room to room now to check for survivors.”
He paused a second to get his bearings before starting a systematic search of each room. Over his headset, he heard Biscoy and Martine taking the third floor.
He encountered two men from Station 9 as they appeared from a nearby hallway. He recognized them, and waved his ax for their attention. Ormzout answered his unspoken question when they joined up.
“We haven’t gotten to the south end yet,” the man informed him, and pointed in that direction.
Knox gave a nod. “I’ll take it.”
“Thanks!” Lyles said. “We’ll finish up this side. If we don’t find anyone, we’ll come assist you!” The two men took off down the adjoining corridor to check out the rooms in that direction.
Rather than start where he was, Knox decided to go to the other end and work his way back. That way, when he met up with the others again, he’d have that much completed.
The smoke was getting thicker, but fortunately visibility wasn’t completely obliterated. Reaching the last room, he ducked inside and swept the area with his flashlight.
“Hello? Anyone in here? Hello!”
Something winked in the far corner, near where a window was located. He quickly strode over to see what it was, and discovered a young woman either passed out or asleep on a bare mattress. Kneeling, he tried to arouse her.
“Miss! Hey, miss!”
He shook her shoulder. Her head lolled from one side to the other, but she didn’t show any signs of consciousness. And it was impossible to tell at that moment if she was alive and breathing.
He keyed his mic. “Emergency! This is Norville! I have one female here, unresponsive!”
“What’s your twenty?” his headphones demanded.
“Southeast corner of the second floor! I’m bringing her down!”
“Negative that! That stairwell is now fully engulfed. We can bring a ladder to you! Is there a window nearby?”
Knox stood. “Affirmative! Opening it now!”
He went over to the window and tried to raise the warped sash, but it refused to budge. Having no other choice, he swung the ax, shattering the glass. A whoosh of air came in, followed by a cloud of smoke billowing back out as he hacked twice more at the window to where he could finally open it.
He stuck his head out and used his flashlight, signaling down to the people on the ground to get their attention. Someone called out, and a ladder truck began inching toward him to extend the steps to him.
Going back over to where the young woman lay, he picked her up and hoisted her over his shoulder. She moved slightly, and he whispered a prayer of thanks that she was still alive.
The ladder landed with a loud thump when it connected with the outside wall. After dropping his tools on the ground outside, he carefully exited backwards through the window to begin his descent.
Four rungs down, she awoke. “Wha—”
He didn’t respond to her. He didn’t need to. She’d quickly catch on as to what was happening.
She slapped his back. “Where’s Corky? Where’s Corky?”
Knox paused. “What?”
“My dog! Where’s my dog?” She was becoming frantic, and began pounding her fists against his back and shoulders. “You gotta save my dog!”
He finally managed to make it down to the truck. From there, several pairs of hands helped the woman to the ground, who by now was sobbing. Prist, who was working the ladder truck, took her by the arms, but she twisted out of his grasp.
“Please! Please save my Corky! Please! You have to! He’s all I got!”
Prist looked at Knox, who still wore his mask and helmet. “Did you see a dog?”
The young woman clutched the front of his jacket. “He’s all I got!” she reiterated, tears streaming down her cheeks. The light from the fire made them look like bits of golden glitter. “Please save him!”
Knox checked the window where they’d emerged. So far there was no sign of the fire. “I’m going back up to check,” he told his co-worker.
Prist nodded. “Be careful.”
Keying his mic, Knox informed the captain. “I’m going back in to check for any further survivors.”
Grabbing the woman by the wrists, he managed to detach her from his gear. “I’m going back inside,” he told her in a loud voice. “Where would he be?”
“He always sleeps on the bed with me.”
He gave her a quick nod. Running over to where his hook and ax lay on the ground, he snatched them up and raced to the ladder truck to return to the second-story room.