Firestorm: Mass configuration of fire, a blowup
Reburn: A fire that is declared out, then later rekindles
Zulies: Missoula smokejumpers
New York City
Oh, Danny Boy, the pipes the pipes are calling…
The words and the song echoed in the back of Landen Weaver’s mind. He stood on the street corner, studying the comings and goings of tourists and locals. His heart remained heavy, yet he knew he was doing the right thing. Leaving his hometown and everyone who’d been a part of his life was perhaps the most difficult decision he’d ever made, but his soul was ready for a final release. Missoula, Montana was certainly a far cry from New York City. A slight chuckle pushing past his lips, he shoved his hands into his pockets, feeling the last remaining set of keys to the bar. The new owner would change the locks, but handing them over was ceremonial as well as needed. At least in his mind.
He stood quietly, drinking in the beeps coming from horns, the sounds of happy laughter and squeals erupting from children as they walked hand in hand with their parents. In his mind, joyful noise, comforting. His nerves were steady, and he was surprised, shocked even, given he’d either tossed or sold ninety percent of everything he owned. A fresh start. This was exactly what the doctor had ordered—sixteen years before. Grinning, he shook off the ugly memory and held his head high as he walked toward the entrance of O’ Grady’s Bar and Grill. Tomorrow morning, he’d bid a quiet farewell to his old life. At least he was leaving town without any fanfare.
The moment he walked inside, he was taken aback, a rush of images flooding his mind, events held at the bar he’d purchased two years after the 9/11 attacks. He’d been a part of the community in an entirely different fashion than being a firefighter, yet it’s time he would always cherish. He walked forward into the lively crowd of people, searching for the new owner. The outspoken retired Judge would fit right in.
From where he stood, he could just make out the wall of photographs, a collage of moments shared with colleagues and friends. Then his eyes settled on the picture of the twin towers. A ragged shiver slithered down the back of both legs, the same one that had almost incapacitated him years before.
Boom! Crack! Whoosh!
“Fire! Get out.”
“Help me! Please help me!”
Landen’s hand trembled as he covered his mouth to keep the moan silent. The agony and sadness would never go away. He’d been just a rookie when 9/11 hit, unsure of his qualifications and unprepared to deal with the horrors. After only two years he quit, his mind no longer able to cope. Purchasing the bar had been his respite, his salvation. Still, he’d fallen into a bottle for comfort. He shook his head as he thought about the fire in his apartment, a careless event after a night of heavy drinking and endless cigarettes.
From that moment, he’d given up hard liquor as well as the cancer sticks. The work out regime had filtered in soon after, followed by a fresh desire to rejoin the fire department he considered family. The new training had been the spur for additional education. Now? His sights were set on smokejumping.
Pushing through, he kept his head low, preferring to just get this over with. Maybe he was a glutton for punishment, but he needed to see the place he’d called home one last time. When he managed to get to within two feet of the bar, he grimaced as the crowd took several steps away.
“A-tten-tion!” the baritone voice boomed over the customers and six men sitting at the bar snapped to their feet at full attention.
Landen held his breath as each man turned around one by one. Seeing the faces of the men he’d served bravely with both during his rookie phase in 2001 and during the last several years gave him a series of shakes. He eyed his buddy, Michael O’ Brien, now Captain O’ Brien of Engine Company 15, and clenched his fists. Emotions he couldn’t handle at this point.
“Did you honestly think we’d allow you to get away that easily, Lieutenant Weaver?” Michael asked as he saluted, then walked toward Landen, his eyes twinkling.
“You son of a bitch,” Landen said under his breath.
“Get the man a beer!” another firefighter exclaimed as he raised his glass, nodding in reverence.
“Or a shot of tequila,” a second voice called out.
Michael held out his hand as he shook his head. “I knew you’d come back here one more time before you ran off to the wild West. Granted, I also had a hefty bet with the guys.” He half turned to face the group. “Every one of you owes me twenty bucks!”
A collective groan could be heard.
Within seconds, Landen was surrounded, men and women patting him on the back or shaking his hand. He was speechless, unsure of how to react. This, he hadn’t expected. He’d hadn’t actively managed the place in a few years.
“The boy is going to collapse. Bartender, another round of beers!”
He glanced at the approaching firefighter, now a decorated fire investigator and was sucked into the past, visions of the day Jimmy O’ Rearden was hurt in an explosion encapsulating every image in his mind. “You old fart.”
“Me? Hold on, now. You’re the guy trying to become a smokejumper. I’m just a lowly investigator.” Jimmy grabbed Landen’s hand then yanked him in for a bear hug. “Gonna miss you, buddy. Shit. We just got you back and you’re gone again.”
“I was always right here.”
“Yeah, I know,” Jimmy whispered, his voice breaking up.
Closing his eyes, Landen allowed himself to remember, albeit briefly, the horrors of the past then shoved them away, determined to end this portion of his life with dignity. The moment he saw his old Captain approaching from behind the group, he failed, tears sliding down his cheeks. “Fuck. You guys didn’t have to do this.” Captain Riley’s face was just as he remembered, but the man’s recent stroke had robbed him of his agility. Life as a firefighter had taken a toll on everyone.
“Like hell we didn’t,” Michael stated as he handed Landen a cold bottle of beer. “You’re a part of the team, my friend and we’re sure as shit going to miss you around here.”
“He’s right, son. We wouldn’t have let you get out of here without saying a proper goodbye. You mean a lot to all of us.” Captain Riley’s eyes misted as he closed the distance, shaking Landen’s hand before wrapping his arms around the firefighter’s tense body.
Landen looked around the room, recognizing so many faces, so many friends and those he considered family. Blinking back the tears, he squeezed his mentor. “Cap’n, I’m glad you’re here.”
When Captain Riley broke the hold, he gripped both of Landen’s arms, his face beaming with pride. “You better take care of yourself. I hear the Zulies are a rough crew.”
“They’re good guys, all of them.” Landen thought about what little he knew regarding the team he was going to risk his life with. At this point, his decision was out of his hands. His new team was expecting him in less than a week. They were counting on him. While excited at the opportunity, he remained apprehensive of the expectations, yet he’d worked long and hard over the last several years to change his physique as well as his attitude. Depression or second guessing wasn’t an option.
“Then maybe they’ll whip your ass into shape,” Captain Riley winked.
Feeling the heat rising on his face, Landen looked away. Yeah, maybe the stricter discipline as well as clean air would change his constant surly attitude.
“To Lieutenant Landen Weaver, one of the finest firefighters in all of New York.” Michael raised his bottle of beer and turned in a full circle, commanding every patron in the bar to lift their glass in celebration.
And they did.
Hearing the claps and cheers, Landen swallowed hard. How in the hell was he going to do this?
He held a slight smile as a solid two dozen men came up to shake his hand. Then he downed the majority of his beer, calming what had become ragged nerves.
“When you leaving?” Jimmy asked as he flanked Landen’s side.
“Tomorrow, bright and early.” He couldn’t help but smile as the kid, no, as the highly respected firefighter and lieutenant on the fast track to garnering everything he wanted out of his career stepped forward. Shaun Griffen had been a gangly kid during 9/11 and had no way of understanding the horrors or the significance of the damning day. The entire department, including his hero, firefighting father, had protected the sweet, young man. Given Shaun’s position with the fire department, he’d seen enough to learn about the terrifying nature of mankind. Shaun’s father would be as proud as he was.
If only he was still alive.
Landen gripped the bottle until his knuckles were white.
“I’m not going to repeat what everyone else is saying, but I do wish you’d stay.” Shaun’s voice was broken, his eyes darting back and forth.
“Yeah, I hear you. Somethin’ I gotta do.”
“I get it. You deserve to be happy, my friend. Working with you, alongside you, has meant so much to me.”
He could see through Shaun’s twinkling eyes. They were more than just brothers in the Engine Company, they were family. “Well, if you’re ever in Montana.”
Grinning, Shaun lifted his beer bottle. “I just might take you up on that.”
Landen nodded and finished off his beer. He remained stoic as the crowd partied, his vision cloudy as his thoughts drifted to the past. He’d never forget, but the events from 9/11 had forever changed him. He walked closer to the bar, lifting the empty bottle. Another cold brew wasn’t going to hurt.
“Why in God’s name did you ever let that woman out of your sight? Whew, baby, she’s hot,” Michael muttered under his breath as he moved behind Landen.
“What?” Cocking his head, Landen felt the nervous tic on his mouth the instant he saw her face. He pressed his hand against his heart as the woman approached, her eyes locking onto his. “Samantha.” His girlfriend of over five years had been a huge part of his support system. She’d endured more bullshit than any woman should ever have to. In his mind, he’d never been good enough for her. Seeing her here today, her beautiful face and sexy expression was almost too much to bear.
“Fool. Should have stolen her from you years ago.”
“Then I would have kicked your ass.”
Laughing, Michael slapped him on the back then moved away.
Landen inched closer as she drew near and for a full minute they said nothing. Their breakup had been civilized, a quiet conversation over dinner one holiday night. She had big dreams and a need for a steady home. He wasn’t one for commitment and never would be. She also had grown weary of the kinky games, as she called them. She’d never understood his dominating side, even though she played the submissive role on-again, off-again. But the trust had been incredible.
After all this time, he thought he’d never see her again. Yet here she was, standing in front of him like a beacon of hope, a quiet reminder of the man he used to be. “You heard.”
“Of course, I heard, silly. Michael has kept me informed over the years.”
He stole a glance at his buddy, who gave him a knowing but very sad look. “Figures.”
“Don’t you dare be angry with Michael. He cares a hell of a lot about you, like everyone in this room does. Besides, do you think I’d miss this?” Samantha half purred as she rose onto her tiptoes, kissing him on the cheek, her fingers clenching his arm.
The touch was electric. His mouth suddenly dry, an awkward tension settled in.
Sighing, she placed her hand on his chest. “God, I’ve missed everything about you, about us.”
He gripped her hand, squeezing as his heart raced. “How’s married life?” Hearing her sultry laughter, he shifted from foot to foot.
“Good. Okay. What you would think.” She smiled and brushed a stray strand of hair from her eyes.
The subtle gesture made his cock swell. “And the girls?”
“Growing bigger every day.” She glanced around the bar and broke their connection. “I really hope you find what you’re looking for and not just in your career.”
“I’m going to try.” His thoughts drifted to the last time they’d been intimate. The spanking had turned into an entire night of passion. He’d kept the belt he’d used on her, for what reason he wasn’t certain. Finding another woman who would submit to him could prove to be… No, he wasn’t going to go down that ugly road.
“I can tell what you’re thinking, big man.” She leaned in, whispering in his ear, “Or should I say, sir?”
Landen laughed and pulled her close, inhaling the sweet scent of her hair. “You always purred when you said that to me.”
“Not after a hard spanking,” she said a little too loudly. Blushing, she glanced from right to left and lowered her head.
“You always did need one.”
“Shame my husband doesn’t seem to know what I need.” Her eyes misting over, she looked away then exhaled. “Anyway, are you certain you want to do this?”
“Yeah. Something I must do.” Nothing or no one was forcing him into the move, yet he knew he had to shift gears, try and garner the man buried deep inside. Even he wasn’t certain why a move across country, but the calling was there. Why was this so damn difficult?
“Maybe I can come out and visit. I mean me and the girls.”
Landen thought about the idea. Leaning down, he cupped the side of her face. “I’d love to see you but—”
Buzz! Wa- Wa-
“What the hell?” Landen jerked his head up, glaring at the radio nestled on a shelf behind the wall of liquors. He’d installed a warning system attached to the fire department years ago. Every call of a fire, every buzz made him sick inside. He jammed against the bar, pulling Samantha behind him.
Every firefighter in the bar reacted, moving closer, their faces full of apprehension.
“Attention Engine Companies 12, 15, 17 and 22, we have a four-alarm fire at the Newberry Town Center. There are reports of people trapped inside.” The announcer’s voice was calm, direct.
“Shit!” Shaun said as he moved closer to the bar, placing his beer bottle on the top. “If that place goes up, it’ll take two or more city blocks. We gotta get back to the station. They’ve got a minimal crew on staff.”
“Yeah. Let’s go,” Another firefighter yelled as he slapped his beer down on the bar.
“Come on, you men need to get moving!” Michael yelled over the din, his tone commanding, then he gave Landen a look. “Come on, buddy. One last call of duty. Sounds like they need a hero.”
Hero. That, he could never be. “Yeah, one last time.” Landen tilted his head, darting his eyes back and forth across Samantha’s. Seeing her pensive face, full of fear and uncertainty was another reminder why he couldn’t withstand a relationship. The hurt was too significant. “Take care of yourself.”
“I will. I…” She took a step back and nodded, a frown crossing her face.
When he followed the others out the door, he could have sworn he heard the words “I love you”.
Twenty minutes later, the team was suited up and racing for the two engines. As Landen jumped on, he held the silver bar and stood, half hanging out of the door as the driver rolled down the road. Inhaling, he drank in the scents of the street, the glowing neon lights of his Brooklyn neighborhood as they rolled by. Only minutes later, flames could be seen above the midrise buildings, a wall of intensity reaching for the heavens.
Dear God, the fire was massive, at least two city blocks wide. Landen craned his neck as the fire engine maneuvered around a corner, allowing a vivid and damning view. “Jesus.” The fire had spread quickly, far too quickly given the updated building codes. The fire walls should have stopped the flames from spreading, or at minimum slowed them down. What he was witnessing was criminal. “Hurry or there won’t be anything left.”
“Shit. Would you look at the size of that damn fire?” Shaun half whispered as he buckled his coat and grabbed his helmet.
“My God. All right. When we’re in position, we go in two by two. Lives we want to save, but not at the cost of our own. Are we clear?” Michael grabbed a coat.
“Clear!” the men chanted.
“Wait a minute. You’re not going out there.” Landen grabbed him by the arm.
“I may be Captain, but I’m a firefighter first. We need all hands on deck.” Michael squeezed his shoulder.
The sound of alarms came from every direction as various police, fire and EMT vehicles rolled into the area.
“Engines 12 and 17 beat us here. Let’s find out where we’re needed. Landen, you and Shaun take point. We’ll grab the hoses.” Michael donned his helmet, clasping the buckles as the fire engine slowed.
“Aye, aye, Captain.” Landen jumped and rushed toward the scene, Shaun on his heels. He headed for the Captain of Engine Company 17, who stood pacing the area just outside of the path of destruction. “Heard there are victims inside?”
“Damn this shit. Third floor. Two were seen at that window,” he said, pointing. “We have limited time before the building blows.” The Captain shook his head.
“We’re on it.” Landen raced for the hose, grabbing the end as Michael approached. “Third floor victims sighted. Gotta get in there.”
Michael looked up, grimacing as a series of popping sounds indicated windows were being blown out. “All right. I’ll take the crew to the roof. You and Shaun get in there, but be careful.”
“You bet.” Turning toward Shaun, he grabbed the young man’s arm. While the firefighter had been in this situation before, he had a bad feeling about this one. “Stay close.” Slapping down his visor, he headed for the building, trotting until he reached the door. Taking a deep breath, he bolted inside. The smoke was overwhelming, swirling in a thick cloud of acrid waves. The sound of creaking wood and metal could be heard from every direction. After his vision adjusted, he headed up the stairs, lugging the hose as he made his way to the second floor.
Shaun flanked his side, spraying water on blue hued flames crawling up the walls and across the ceiling.
The fire was hot, consuming everything in its path. He eyed the area, studying the floor for any signs of distress. Seeing none, he continued, taking the stairs two at a time. When he reached the landing, he heard a loud screech followed by a whooshing sound.
The force of the falling wallboard slammed down on both men, causing them to lose their footing.
“Damn!” Shaun shouted as he pushed away the debris.
“Careful,” Landen managed and slung away the broken plaster as he pressed on. Every surface was covered with licking flames, alive and flickering as the blaze ate its way toward them. He turned in a half circle, listening for any signs of the victims. After taking another series of calculated steps, he stopped once again. This time he heard what sounded like a distinct cry, a child’s cry. Damn it! “Over here.”
Trudging through piles of burning debris, he made his way toward a hallway. Without adequate lighting, he could only make out a hint of a window at the far end. He jerked his flashlight, flicking the switch. The glow only illuminated the horrid situation. “This way. Careful.”
Shaun nodded as he turned from right to left, swinging the hose. The water was having little if any effect, only creating steam and crackling hissing noises.
Every step tentative, Landen strode down the hallway. He knew there were other firefighters behind him, but his experience had taught him there was no time to wait for back up. They would have one shot at getting anyone out alive.
The floor gave away and Landen went down, dropping the flashlight and hose as he scrambled to catch himself.
“Shit! Landen!” Shaun moved in, catching Landen’s arm just before he fell all the way through.
Panting, Landen hoisted himself up, using the power of his upper torso as he wrenched his body up through the hole. “Aahh!” Screaming and grunting, he managed to lift himself up then crawled out, moaning as he grabbed for the wall. The rest of the floor would give away at any time.
Water sloshed back and forth, the free-flowing hose jerking like a snake.
After several attempts, Landen managed to grab the end, yanking the steel tip into his hands. He shut off the water and dropped the hose. At this point the line would become tangled, dangerous.
“We should go back,” Shaun yelled over the increasing roar.
“No. Not yet.” He inched further down the hall, hugging the wall and studying the floor. “Check those two rooms. I’m going to the end.”
Nodding, Shaun took long strides, going inside one of the rooms.
Landen made his way to the end of the hall, quickly going in and out of two rooms. There was nothing but blackness, fire having taken over the outside walls. Where the hell was the water on this side? Fear crept along his spine, creating a wave of nausea. No. This wasn’t going to happen. He could do this. He had to save them.
The building rattled from the explosion, sending shards of glass and wood raining down over him. “Fuck!” Shaking off the terror, he inched closer to the last door.
The small voice was pitiful, broken and defeated.
Sucking in his breath, Landen took a giant stride, stepping over a pile of debris. The second he was inside the room, he could see a woman huddled at the end of a couch, her arms wrapped around a bundle. “Stay where you are!”
She looked up, her arm reaching out. “Oh God!”
The smoke was too thick to make out what she had in her arms. Landen crept forward as the building rattled again, shaking from its very foundation. He had seconds, maybe a minute or two at the most. Crouching down, he closed the distance. “I’m going to get you out of here.” Just then, a tiny face emerged from the woman’s arms.
The little girl reached out as she continued crying, her wails strangled by the smoke.
His heart thumping into his chest, he almost froze but his instinct kicked in. Grabbing the little girl, he held her tightly against his chest. “Follow me. Step where I step. Do you understand?”
“Yes. Yes!” the woman struggled to say, her voice failing.
“Come on.” Covering the child as much as he could, Landen looked at the only window in the room. The entire wall was on fire, flames coming together to create a colorful mass of Hell. There was one way out. He kept low to the ground as he headed for the door, every step made with as little pressure as he could manage. There could be zero mistakes.
They made it outside into the hallway. The fire had taken out a portion of the other side, leaving a narrow space to get through. “Grab my coat,” he commanded and the second the woman did as she was told, he made his way in a zigzag line, careful to avoid the increasing flames.
Shaun popped out of a room, spraying the area in front of Landen, paving a larger path. “No one else I could find.”
He heard the words, registering what they meant. This was their mission. The other firefighters had abandoned the space. Now, they had to get the hell out of there. Landen was almost to the landing when another series of creaks and groans caught their attention. And in the few seconds afterwards, he could swear he heard another cry for help.
Shaun stopped the water and tipped his head. “Get them downstairs. I’ll take one last look.”
“Ten seconds. No more.” As he headed down the stairs, he looked over his shoulder and the second Shaun placed his hand on a doorknob, ready to open the door, he screamed, “No!”
The backdraft blew out the door, sending Shaun rocketing across the space until his body slammed against a wall.
“No!” Landen shifted, yanking the woman further into the stairwell. The force knocked them down. Rolling, he protected the little girl, covering her body with his, until they hit the next landing.
“Oh!” The woman’s scream was cut off.
Immediately he reached for her, able to tell she was alive. “Are you able to move?”
“I… think… so.”
“Then we have to get out of here.” His heart was racing as he struggled to get them down the last flights. Breaking free to the fresh air, he almost shoved the little girl into the arms of a waiting EMT then turned around.
“Where are you going?”
He heard the booming voice, but didn’t give a shit for his own safety. He would not lose Shaun. He gripped the railing and took the stairs two at a time, hearing several additional creaks and booms. The entire building was going at any moment. Popping up onto the third floor, he struggled to focus, the smoke black and thick, rolling through the hallway. Water from Shaun’s unrestrained hose was hissing, dancing from the pressure. “Shaun!” As he looked up, he cringed. There wasn’t a surface that wasn’t covered in flames.
“Get… out…” Shaun choked.
“Hell no.” Coughing, he took several steps forward, straddling the hose. After three tries, he grabbed close enough to the end until he had control and shot a stream in Shaun’s direction. He had maybe ten seconds to grab his teammate. Within seconds, he had Shaun in his arms, his adrenaline kicking into overdrive. “Hold on, buddy. Just hold the fuck on.” Hoisting him up and over his shoulder, he raced out of the area, bounding down the stairs.
The moment he was outside, another explosion occurred, blowing out every remaining window.
Dropping to the ground, Landen remained covering Shaun until he heard voices around him. Only then did he look down at his friend, his little brother. The moment he looked into the kid’s eyes, he said a prayer to some God from above. Somehow, Shaun had been spared.
“Gotta admit, buddy, I wish you didn’t have to leave today,” Michael said then took a sip of coffee, making a face before tossing the Styrofoam into the nearest trashcan. “Nasty shit.”
Landen exhaled as he darted glances around the hospital. He’d spent far too many days inside one during his career to last a lifetime. “I don’t have any more time. I have three days to get there.”
“To drive to Missoula? You’re out of your mind.”
“I have my baby.” Grinning, Landen glanced in through the glass, studying Shaun’s sleeping form.
“Uh-huh. You and that Cougar are going to get yourself into a heap of trouble one day.” Michael followed his gaze. “He’s going to be okay. Lucky bastard. The burns are second degree and only on his legs. He’ll need some time, but he’ll recover.”
“No. Thanks to you. Crazy shit what you did and if you were staying, I’d place you on probation.”
Landen grinned. “Tell him I was here. Will ya?”
“He knows. Trust me, he knows.” Michael turned to face him. “You gonna let me know how you’re doing occasionally?”
Michael opened his eyes wide, as if anticipating this was the truth. Then he smiled and gave Landen a hug. “I’ll hunt you down if you don’t. Take care of yourself.”
Landen stiffened and exhaled before pulling back. “I will. Gotta run.”
As Landen headed down the hallway, he held his breath.
He stopped and twisted until he could see Michael. “Yeah?”
“Find that missing piece of your soul.”
Nodding, Landen knew exactly what his friend was telling him. Walking out of the hospital, he refused to look back even once. The moment he started the car, revving the engine, he fell into a quiet peace as he turned on the satellite radio. Grabbing his sunglasses, he eased them on as he twisted the knob until the base boomed in the car, thumping until the Cougar gyrated with vibrations. He took off, screeching the tires for effect and headed out of the city.
Gripping the steering wheel with both hands, he drove like a man on a mission over the Brooklyn Bridge. When he hit a traffic light, he idled and contemplated one last stop. Deciding against it, he pressed on. Seeing the new World Trade Center wasn’t the same.
When he finally glanced into the rearview mirror, the city appeared on the horizon. For almost ten seconds, he could swear he saw the twin towers, standing in all their majesty. If only that could be true. When he looked again, the new building appeared in the distance. All things had to change, some for the better and some for the worse. He was absolutely ready for more.
Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling…