Fighting the Flames (Southern Heat Book 2), страница 1
Fighting the Flames
Southern Heat Book 2
Wild Owl Press
Copyright and Disclaimer
Also by Jamie Garrett
About the Author
Copyright and Disclaimer
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 by Jamie Garrett
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other non-commercial uses permitted by copyright law. All requests should be forwarded to [email protected]
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Cover design by The Final Wrap.
Editing by Jennifer Harshman, Harshman Services.
She was trapped in the throes of a dream. Meg knew it, but she couldn’t make herself wake up. She’d had dreams like this before, drifting in that disconcerting state between sleep and consciousness. But this time something was wrong. She sensed it, but not on an intellectual level. An instinctual one. Wake up! She shifted in bed, moaned softly, and succumbed as sleep once again overtook her.
Something tugged at her mind again. What time was it? Please, not time to get up yet! She lay under the covers, way too comfortable to even think about moving. Still half dozing, she pulled the covers up to her chin, her face exposed to the chill of mid-October. Still half-dozing, eyelids heavy, she reminded herself to bring a space heater up into her attic room soon.
Meg forced one eyelid halfway open. The red numbers on her cheap alarm clock were still visible from halfway across the room. If she had it any closer to the bed, she’d hit it off in the morning and simply go back to sleep. Still, it was a little hard to see. She had to focus for several moments before the blur coalesced. Meg blinked once, slightly lifting her head off the dent she’d made in her pillow. Four-ten. With a pleased sigh her head fell back onto the pillow. Thank God. Three more hours. She still had three more hours before she had to get up. Delicious. She burrowed deeper under the covers and drifted off again.
A loud noise woke her. This time she jolted upright in bed, heart pounding. Undulating flashes of light and color were splashed over the attic walls and ceiling. What the hell? She muttered a curse but her breath caught and she coughed. Her throat felt dry and scratchy and something in the air made her eyes water. She coughed again. Smoke? Was that smoke?
Eyes wide, she threw her covers back, momentarily frozen with indecision. The darkness in her room was broken only by the red and blue lights creating crazy kaleidoscope patterns on the walls, the ceiling, and back to the walls. She scrambled out of bed and stepped toward the grimy attic window. A gasp escaped her lips. Even through the grime, distorting the view two and a half stories below, she watched a Monroe Police Department squad car pull up in front of the house. A siren wailed in the distance, coming closer. A fire engine? Was someone’s house on fire? She glanced up and down the residential street on the outskirts of Monroe.
Nothing. Then it hit her. Her house was on fire! Her beloved Victorian! The Victorian she had scrimped and saved for years to buy. The house she had converted into a shelter. Years of saving, nearly starving herself while she worked two jobs. The conversions, the renovations, the permits, the funding; she had managed to do it. Of course she had some community support, even occasional volunteers, but earlier in the year, her dream had finally come true. Helping others in need in a real, tangible, material way.
And now it was on fire. Fuck.
She quickly swiped her hand over the glass of the old, original window, wishing now that she hadn’t put window-washing at the bottom of this week’s to-do list. Especially since she had decided to convert half of the attic space into her private office and sleeping quarters. The other half was still filled with boxes, old pieces of furniture, and remnants from previous owners that she had yet to dig through. She shivered. From fear or the chill in the air? Her thin pajama bottoms and old T-shirt were no match for such exposure. Meg rubbed her arms, resisting the urge to fling either the door or the window wide open, and tried to think.
The fire. Where was it? She glanced over her shoulder and peered through the darkness toward the bedroom door. Was that smoke oozing into the room? A murky white cloud floated upward from the space between the bottom of the door and the old wooden floorboards. The original flooring, the planks held together by one-hundred-fifty-year-old wooden pegs that she had fought tooth and nail to keep throughout the house. Areas of the floor through the house creaked when you walked on it, and some areas were warped, with slight dips as you moved from room to room, but—
Reality crashed down around her. She had to get out. No time to change into her jeans and sweatshirt, crumpled on the floor at the base of her bed. Her tennis shoes. She should at least slip them on. Fear burgeoned and she coughed again, trembling as she slid her feet into the shoes with jerky movements.
She stepped to the door and reached for the knob but then hesitated, remembering what she had been taught so many years ago. She placed her palm against the wood door. It didn’t feel particularly hot. Both palms pressed to the wood that needed sanding and several coats of varnish to restore their shine—another item on her growing to-do list—she carefully pressed her ear to the door, listening. Where was everyone? Why didn’t she hear anything?
On the one hand she was relieved that she didn’t hear the crackling or popping of flames on the other side, but why was it so quiet? Were the others all right? If the doorknob wasn’t hot, would it be safe to open the door, make her way downstairs? It might be dangerous to open the door even if the knob wasn’t hot; that would allow more oxygen to rush inside the room. More oxygen, more fuel for flames. What the hell should she do?
Meg wanted to rush, to get out of there, but she slowed her movements as she inched her hand toward the metal doorknob. Maybe she would open the door, just a crack, look on the other side. She grasped the knob and jerked her fingers away with a hiss. The doorknob was hot!
She didn’t want to imagine flames at the bottom of the narrow staircase. Didn’t want to see those same flames devouring her beloved home beneath her, consuming dry, seasoned wood floors, recently refurbished drywall, the glorious wooden handrail and stairs, lovingly restored to their former beauty by her own hands. She turned to the window, one of those old-fashioned wood-framed windows that operated with a recessed pulley system, two oblong panes of glass captured horizontally in their own
She couldn’t open the window! Down below, she heard voices. Shouts of alarm. She cried out.
“Tanisha!” Tanisha, her cook, one of her first “temporary” residents, a no-nonsense African-American woman who, in her own words, had grown up on the wrong side of the tracks. She’d been a former prostitute and had come to the shelter after a horrid beating by her pimp. She’d planned to leave town and move on after a few days, but as it turned out her pimp disappeared and Tanisha had stayed on, finding a passion for cooking for the homeless and downtrodden who came to the shelter for their one warm meal every day.
Tanisha’s room was on the second floor but on the opposite side of the house as Meg’s attic room. So too was the room occupied by two relatively recent tenants, Amy and Aliyah. The only other person who might be on the premises lived in a converted room in the basement space; sixty-five-year-old homeless veteran Tim Jefferson.
Meg banged her hand against the thick glass, but the sound was muffled even to her ears. “Anybody!”
She heard the cacophony of shouting and orders from outside as the firefighters, outfitted in full turnout gear, dragged a fire hose across the small front lawn and toward the house. A thudding sound as the front door was kicked open. Alarm surged upward at the thought and then she cursed. Idiot. She could replace the front door. More sounds below. A scream. She banged on the window again with both hands, trying to get someone’s attention but no one heard her. Down below, Tanisha, Amy, and Aliyah were escorted from the house by a firefighter. She didn’t see Tim.
“Up here!” She banged on the glass until her hand ached. Even if she managed to break it, she doubted whether she could clamber through the window. At chest level, the window didn’t look that big. Besides, it was a straight drop to the ground below. She’d break a leg or worse if she jumped.
The room felt heavier, thick with smoke. A fit of coughing overtook her and she hunched down, scrambling to the bed on all fours. It was amazing what you could remember from elementary school. She hurried to the bed, snatched at another T-shirt hanging from her bedpost and crumpled the material over her mouth and nose. Her eyes stung and watered from the smoke. Heart pounding, panic threatening to overtake her, she scooted along the floor toward the door. Meg lowered the T-shirt, wrapped it around her hand, and once again reached for the doorknob. She paused, swallowing. Was she doing the right thing or just hastening a fiery death? Either way, it wouldn’t be long before she could no longer breathe in the attic room. She cracked the door open. A brief rush of cool air was sucked into the room, immediately followed by heat. Flames licked their way upward on the far side of the attic.
She slammed the door shut, her legs threatening to give way. Again on her hands and knees, coughing from the smoke now making its way in wispy threads up through the floorboards beneath her, she quickly crawled toward the wall with the window. She lunged to her feet and stood staring down at the activity below. Her stomach sank and realization dawned like a blow to her stomach. No one knew she was up here. In the middle of transitioning from her studio apartment on the other side of town, she had spent the past couple of weeks transporting some of her belongings and pieces of furniture over, but she hadn’t yet finished the move. She hadn’t told anyone that she would be sleeping up in the attic tonight.
She banged on the window again, desperation threatening to overcome her. She tried to tamp it down, to calm her racing heart, her accelerated breathing that only made breathing harder. She had to get someone’s attention. “Look up!” Her voice cracked with emotion. “Look up! I’m up here!” She called again and again. Her throat grew sore. She glanced back toward the door. Should she risk it? She had to run, to get away. She could race down the stairs, get out of the house before the fire caught her, couldn’t she? Or would she be overwhelmed with smoke, her lungs closing off, choking her until she crumpled to the floor to be consumed by those hot flames?
“No!” She struggled to keep panic at bay. Blinked to keep the tears from flowing. From giving up. From surrendering to her growing terror.
Neighbors had begun to gather on the sidewalk across the street, some wearing pajamas while some had taken the time to don robes. Slippers on, hair tousled, all staring at the house and the activity surrounding it. Her eyes teared from the acrid stench of smoke and her emotional fear. She didn’t want to die! Not like this. Not now. She banged the palm of her hand against the glass to no avail.
She needed to break it. Maybe falling glass would get someone’s attention. Maybe someone would hear her screaming. She looked around for something to break the window with. Damn it! Nothing but her small plastic alarm clock. She crossed the small space in three steps, not bothering to get down on the floor now. A harsh jerk and she pulled the power cord from the wall socket behind the table. Once again wrapping her hand in her T-shirt, she grasped the clock and returned to the window. Coughing, squinting her eyes against the sting of smoke. Standing to the side of the window, she bashed at it. At first, nothing.
Mewling sounds of desperation erupted from her throat. Three times she smashed the alarm clock against the window. Was it even strong enough to do any damage to the thick panes of glass? Damn, they made things to last back then. It’s what she loved about the old house, but now she cursed at it, cursed the thickness of the fucking window. There! The glass finally cracked. Driven by the abject horror of being burned alive, she smashed at the glass several more times until finally it broke. Only a small piece at first, but she kept hitting, and then finally, her hand went through.
She felt the sharp stab of pain and stared down at her forearm. Blood dripped from it onto the glass. She couldn’t stop. Meg continued to bash at the glass until it shattered. The smell of smoke grew stronger. She stepped to the window, still clasping the alarm clock in her hand. Screamed, even though her throat protested.
“Help! Up here!” No one looked her way. She was on the side of the house, the Victorian oriented perpendicular to the street. The sound of the pumper engine, the shouts of orders by the fire chief, the sounds of movement down below all muffled her cries for help. She tried again, tried to shout louder but all she managed was a cough. Her throat harsh and dry, she had barely any voice left.
“Help! Up here!” Nothing. She cursed. Thinking quickly, she stepped to her bed, tossing the alarm clock to the floor along with the bundled up and now bloody T-shirt. It had protected her hand but not her arms. The gash throbbed and fresh blood ran down her arm. She ignored it. Meg pulled the bedspread and blanket off the bed and yanked off the top sheet. She was going to get their attention if it was the last thing she did. It very well might be. Grasping the sheet, she moved back to the window, nearly doubled over with another coughing fit. Wrapping one corner of the sheet around her bleeding hand, she shoved the rest of it out the window. No way would they miss the sight of a white sheet flapping in the air.
Meg pushed the sheet as far out of the window as she could, holding onto it with as much strength as she could manage. She watched. One of the firefighters checking the dials on the side of the pumper engine glanced up, stared, then pointing, shouted to someone she couldn’t see. Another firefighter stepped into view, looking upward.
She cried out with relief as she watched several firefighters scrambling toward the side of the house with an extendable ladder. How bad was the fire? Where had it started? How? Her mind spun with questions that at the moment had no answers. She clutched the sides of the w
The firefighter appeared at the window, a smile on his face as if nothing untoward had happened. In full turnout gear, he was buried by his jacket, gloves, and helmet.
“Stay calm, ma’am,” he said. “My name’s Dean and I’ll have you out of there in a jiffy.” One hand clasping the top rung of the ladder, he extracted a tool from a loop on his trousers with the other. “Stand back. I’m just getting rid of the extra glass here.”
The tool looked like a smaller version of a nail puller. He smashed the remnant shards from each of the window frames. What about the window sash? Neither the upper or lower frame was big enough for her to pass through. With one powerful thrust of his forearm, his body weight behind it, he broke the cross frames and sashes. Problem solved. Knocking the remnants of the shattered wood from the outside frame, he grinned, slid the tool back into the loop in his pants, and then reached behind him. His partner gave him a folded up piece of canvas, which he quickly laid over the window sill.
No, she wasn’t ready. No, she didn’t want to go out the window. She wanted to be back in bed, sleeping peacefully. She wanted to be someone whose house wasn’t on fire. Dreams going up in smoke and flames all around her.