Tuesday, October 13

2:27 AM

            It’s foggy and unusually cold for October and I’m nodding off to the beginnings of a post carb-binge nap. The heady odor of a greasy cheeseburger and fries lingers in the air. I submit to the food coma and feel my consciousness ebb away. It’s a quiet night, and the worst I can expect for a little shut eye on the clock would be a mild tongue lashing from Captain Pryce, and even the best officers do it from time to time. It’s called the graveyard shift, for crying out loud.
            The dispatcher’s call cuts through the air like the hiss of a welder’s torch, threatening to ignite the space in my stuffy Dodge. I jolt to attention and crank the dial on my dash.
            This is a code three, repeat, a code three,” barks the voice. “We’ve got a fire reported on Castle and Paso. Unit twenty-three, do you copy?” I clear my throat to force the sleepiness into retreat and reply into my shoulder.
            “Unit-twenty three here, copy that. En route to Castle and Paso. Has the fire department already been notified?” I crank the key in the ignition, lighting up the dash and bringing the engine to a throaty rumble.
            Affirmative, unit twenty-three. HFD on its way.
            I flip a switch on my console, splashing blue and red light across the sleepy Shell station. A baggy-eyed teenage girl with faded pink extensions leans over the counter in the glass box convenience store at the far end of the pumps and stares. A break in the drudgery of her night shift, no doubt. My sirens split the night as I peel from the station.
            I blink away the dryness in my eyes as the adrenaline surges through my body. The sluggishness from moments ago is gone; in its place is the usual flood of concerns that come with any call. What will be waiting for me there? What kind of decisions will I need to make? Will everyone walk away unharmed? 
            A code three can be anything from an overturned grill charring someone’s front lawn to a full-blown industrial blaze, though at half-past two in the morning, neither seems likely. I do my best to picture the intersection where Castle Lane and Paso Avenue meet and guess at what might’ve started the incident.
            The Pylons. That’s how everyone refers to that part of town, the name itself a dismal reminder of all it’s come to represent. Long ago, the city promised big things for the area. They put up billboards all around town with ads for “Coming Soon” strip malls and big name stores. They pumped a few million into developing a monorail linking the area to the city hub. Contractors showed up and began forming the concrete pillars that would eventually support the track. But when the new mayor took office four years back, he reallocated the funds to counteract the rising crime rate, and the monorail project was abandoned. The pillars were never torn down, however, and now jut from the landscape like the skeletal remains of some long-dead beast.
            What sparse development eventually came this way turned the Pylons into a semi-commercial, semi-residential, semi-industrial mishmash, as if the urban planners threw their hands up and left everything to chance. There’s a Goodwill nestled between stucco condos and a dilapidated park, a library set against the rear parking lot of a Taco Bell and a recycling plant. You get the picture; it’s ugly.
            In the Pylons, it’s common to see packs of youths prowling around like hungry wolves, showing off the chrome bulges of handguns from beneath their waistbands. I think about these kids now, the ones I see from time to time throwing cinderblocks through the windows of abandoned cars or getting high behind one of the dilapidated strip malls, and wonder if it’s one of them who has something to do with the code three.
            With one hand balancing the wheel, I reach over the console and swipe a finger across my Toshiba. The tablet’s screen glows to life in a webwork of colorful lines set against a black gradient. My Dodge is a blinking red triangle, 023, at the center of the map. I tap the corner of the screen to zoom out, and two more triangles appear. They’re the two other officers on duty, but I see from a glance that they’re well outside the response radius. I’ll be the sole responder.
            I slip off the freeway leading into the Pylons and immediately note the orange smear of a fire reflected overhead in a clot of low lying clouds. I thumb off the sirens and roll down my window. The air is sharp with the acrid scent of burn. A couple of hooded teenage boys sit on the curb a few doors down from the fire, snapping at the destruction on their smartphones and snickering. I consider chasing them off but think better of it. They could be packing, and I don’t have backup. I park my Charger across the street and aim its hood in the direction of the blaze. I want my dash cam to catch it all.
            I emerge from my squad car and feel myself pushed back by a stifling wave of heat. Something explodes, sending a cascade of sparks onto the concrete driveway that leads to the rear of the property. I check my watch. 2:45.
            Curious neighbors are beginning to creep out of their front doors with faces like frightened animals emerging from the woodwork. Lights on porches are flickering on and yells can be heard as the neighbors assess the danger.
            “You just gonna stand there?” shouts a woman in my direction. I ignore her. A baby in someone else’s house is screaming.
            “Hey, I’m talkin’ to you!” The woman repeats, louder this time, her voice competing with the hiss and crackle of fire. I give her a curt nod and hold up a hand to let her know she’s been heard.
            “Ma’am, I’m gonna need you to go on inside now,” I say in an even voice.
            “Or what?” she sneers, taking a step off the porch. The light from the fire sends strange shimmering patterns across her silk nightgown. Pastel curlers bob like buoys in the turbulent sea of her white streaked hair.
            “Ma’am, the fire department is on its way, so it’s best you go inside. You’ll be safe there.”
            “Safe? I got Dante’s inferno down the road and the cops sitting around doin’ nothin’ and you tellin’ me it’s safe?”
            “Ma’am…” I begin, feeling the exasperation creep into my voice. But before I can finish the thought, a second, more violent explosion rips from the flames. Glass splinters shower onto the sidewalk and something metallic lurches from the roof and crashes to the ground. People are shouting. The baby’s screams go up a notch. I stagger backwards and glance again at my wristwatch. Where are the firefighters?
            More activity in the neighbors’ houses now, lights turning on, people stumbling into the sidewalk with flashlights. Some old guy is hobbling down the sidewalk with a bucket, who knows what for. Flames leap higher and higher into the atmosphere. The air glows with specs of red, like a swarm of fireflies caught in a black glass bottle.
            I approach the burning building and circle it cautiously. At least it’s a safe distance from the surrounding lots, hindering the fire’s ability to spread. The last thing I need is a panicked populace caught in an uncontrollable neighborhood-wide inferno.
            As I round the building, I discover with no small relief that this isn’t a residential property. There are few windows and no backyard. Instead, at its rear I find a commercial-sized AC unit and a parking lot large enough to fit a few dozen cars, though at the moment it’s nearly empty. A single, green Toyota Camry sits in one of the spaces at the far end of the lot.
           On the other side of the building, a small unit has been built to match the style of the main building. A narrow walkway separates the two structures, and flames are beginning to leap from the first building to the second.
            2:55, and still no sign of HFD.
            I jog back to the front of the building, feeling the heat lunge from the plastic siding that cracks and buckles, submitting to the devouring flames. The intensity of the heat is almost unbearable. I shield my face as I run, unrelenting waves of heat battering me as I charge back to the main road.
            The woman is waiting for me next to my squad car. Some mystifying sense of propriety has apparently moved her to cover her unkempt curls. She’s tied a silk handkerchief around her head and now looks even more ridiculous than before. Her arms are crossed and a glowing cigarette hangs from the corner of her mouth. Her look demands an accounting for my actions.
            “Well?” she barks.
            “Well, what?” I manage, still out of breath. My skin stings with the pain of a bad sunburn. “It’s a fire. Not much else to say,” I mutter, annoyed at feeling obliged to answer her.
            “Yeah? Well, what about the apartment in back?” the woman snaps.
            “…Apartment?” I gasp, feeling a sudden chill despite the heat.
            “The little apartment in the back. There’s folks livin’ in there.”
            I crane my neck to look back at the blaze I’ve just escaped. In what could’ve only been a minute or two, the fire has grown. The paved driveway I just ran across is now blocked by a fallen scrap of smoldering debris from the roof. I fling open my car door and hit the transmitter.
            “Jenny, it’s me, Luke. Look, I’m at the scene of the fire and there’s no sign of FD. I’ve been here for fifteen minutes and nothing. Where are they?”
            “Unit twenty-three, copy that. FD said it had engine trouble on the freeway. They’re prepping another truck now, might be a few more minutes.”
            Great. Just in time to roast some marshmallows over a smoking ash heap, I think, and toss the radio back in the car.
            “So this is where my tax dollars go,” scoffs the woman. I brush past her and race back to the flames. By the time I reach the driveway I feel as if I’ve plunged into a pool of pure fire. Inexplicable snippets of Sunday school lessons begin flashing through my head, echoes of sermons I thought I’d long ago forgotten.
            And the devil was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone…’ I try to silence the memories and focus, but they come all the same. I feel the hair on my arms singe, the skin of my face and neck sting in the heat. I’m suddenly very vulnerable and insignificant in the face of that fiery power, a wax figurine dipped into a pit of lava.
            Somewhere in my mind, the preacher won’t shut up. ‘Where they will be tormented…’ I jump over a pile of scorched timbers and melted siding and stumble on the other side, catching the pavement in the palms of my hands. My flesh feels sticky and wilted, as if I were being melted down to my most primal elements. ‘…forever and ever…’
            When I finally make it back to the rear lot of the building, I take a minute to catch my breath, my lungs filling over and over with hot air and smoke. I hunch over, hands on my knees, working up my resolve as I wait for the agonizing sting of heat to subside. The roof of the small apartment building is now covered in patches of flames. I edge as near as I dare and begin shouting into the fire.  “Hey, anyone in there?” I shout, barely audible above the roar of flames. The windows are dark and still, save for a dull reflection of leaping flames. An odd mix of anger and relief washes over me as the thought crosses my mind that the old woman may have just been pulling my leg. Could such a small building even be an apartment? It looks more like a fancy shed with windows. An office, at the very most. The problem is, there’s that car in the parking lot, meaning that its driver could plausibly be inside.
            I wipe a sheen of sweat from my face and take a step back, glancing again into the window. And freeze.
            There, within the darkness, is the faint outline of a face. The mouth is open–screaming, probably, though I can only hear the merciless crack and hiss of fire–and the eyes, terror-filled. Trapped inside the small building is a feeble old man.
            I lunge forward, baring my teeth as the heat chews at me furiously.
            “You’ve got to get out of there! Now!” I scream, my voice beginning to go hoarse with the smoke. Still, he just stands there, a look of hopelessness on his face, refusing to move. I stab my index finger again and again in the direction of his door, insisting the obvious. He shakes his head slowly and raises two bony hands, his mouth opening and closing in a useless explanation.
            Something is wrong. A jammed door, perhaps? Maybe he’s hit his head and forgotten how to open it? Or perhaps the other side is already on fire? I watch in paralyzed horror as the old man holds a cloth over his mouth and keels over, shuddering.
            I take another look at the door. I stand a few paces back and charge at it, wincing as my shoulder rams into the solid wood. I hear a sharp crack and feel something give, and I wonder for an awful moment if it’s come from the door or the bones in my body. I wind my arm a few times, hearing a click that hadn’t been there before. Bruised without a doubt, but not broken.
            I resume my position, brace myself for anything, and charge again.