“My friend could be inside. Please! You can’t just let her die.”
The heat of the flames seared her body, but Zoey Meager didn’t care. She seethed against the two firemen holding her back. When she heard another explosion from the three-story warehouse, she raised an arm to cover her face and cringed as more windows blew out. Glass pummeled the ground like molten rain and black smoke mixed with red embers to spiral into the night sky.
“Let me go in. I’ll take my chances.” She struggled against the two burly firemen.
“No one goes inside.” A familiar voice cut through the din.
Larger than life and dressed in turnout gear, Sam Riggs blocked her path and placed a gloved hand on her shoulder. She knew the fireman from the hospital where she worked as a nurse.
“Police say we have a potential hostage situation, Zoey,” he said. “It’s not safe for my men, or anyone. I’m sorry. We have to stand down until we get the ‘all clear’ from the police.”
When she saw the pained look on his face, she stopped fighting. He hated this as much as she did. The Denver SWAT team—dressed in full tactical gear in their navy BDUs—had established a perimeter. Even if she found the guts to run into a burning building, she didn’t know if she could evade a highly trained SWAT unit.
She stared into the raging fire and hopelessness consumed her. Tears stung her eyes and drained down her cheeks. Kaity. She’d been sure this time. Now she prayed she’d been wrong with all her heart as the fire destroyed everything.
“I’m sorry, Zoey.” Riggs gripped her shoulder before he let her go. “Real sorry.”
She knew Riggs and his men resented being sidelined when lives were at stake. If a gunman held hostages inside, she understood why police had taken control of the scene.
Zoey quit fighting the two men who braced her arms until they released her. She sank into the shadows, feeling useless, and took a deep breath. She slumped against the hood of a police cruiser with its spiraling light bar and stared up at the beams of red and blue cutting through the darkness, with her mind reeling.
Firefighters stood to her right. They could only watch as flames ravaged the abandoned warehouse. Each face had a grim expression colored by regret. She understood the anger of being forced to accept defeat before the fight had begun.
Dense smoke tainted the acrid air and an intense red glow painted the pitch-black sky. Ambulances and police vehicles continued to arrive—Code 3—with bystanders and news crews gathering in the distance. The scene looked and sounded chaotic, but nothing distracted her from imagining the horror her friend Kaity could be facing inside.
She pulled out her cell phone and raised it to her ear, listening to the last message she’d received from Kaity—a message she couldn’t delete. She hadn’t played it for anyone. Oh, Kaity, I’m so sorry. Zoey felt a lump in her throat and shut her eyes to pray, hoping God would hear her. When she opened her eyes again, she saw movement inside the warehouse.
Someone lurked in the shadows.
“Kaity?” she whispered.
This time she wouldn’t let anyone stop her.
Zoey crept along a back wall and scaled a fence to drop to the other side. Two large loading bays were dead ahead. She crouched in the dark, looking for the best way in when she heard the sound of a faint whimper. Zoey turned toward the noise.
What the hell?
A massive black dog sat on its haunches not five yards from her. She braced for an attack, but the dog didn’t appear interested in her. It looked more like a lumbering bear with wise and soulful eyes, as if it weren’t an animal at all. It stared into the warehouse with its ears perked and eyes alert. Its feet were restless as if it would run, but it stayed put, rooted in place.
“What’s up, big guy?”
The dog didn’t waver. Even if she’d been a T-bone, the fierce-looking animal wouldn’t have budged. But before she gave the dog a second thought, Zoey saw a police tactical team emerge from the shadows. If she didn’t move fast, the cops would block her only way into the building.
“Sorry, boy. You’re on your own,” she whispered.
Sticking to the shadows, she raced for the delivery ramp and ducked inside the building. Everything turned black. She couldn’t see her hand in front of her face until her eyes adjusted. Her breaths became shallow out of necessity. Too much smoke made it impossible to take a full breath.
With her hands out in front of her, she found a perimeter wall and felt her way to a door and into a larger section of the warehouse. Her stinging eyes desperately searched for Kaity.
Please, God. Help me find her.
As she peered through the murky air, she tore off a sleeve of her T-shirt and searched for water. From her work at the hospital, she knew that smoke inhalation was the leading cause of death from fires. When she found a utility sink and a faucet, she doused her cotton sleeve in water and pulled it over her head to cover her nose and mouth.
She’d have only minutes to rush through the building. It had to be enough. But when the smoke became too thick, Zoey knew what to do. She dropped to her knees and crawled. Every second turned into an eternity. The damp cloth across her face steamed in the intense heat as she called out to Kaity. It didn’t take her long to realize she had to conserve energy.
Within minutes the fire would surround her—and she’d run out of time.
Move it. Now!
Everywhere she searched, the rooms glowed in blood red amidst choking black smoke. Flames belched through doorways and consumed everything in sight. The scorching heat burned her skin through her clothes. Even the hair on her arms singed when she got too close to the fire and Zoey smelled her hair smoldering.
She forced her mind to focus on her search, despite her growing fear, but another danger posed a problem.
Not knowing what had caught fire, the closed-in structure made it a real possibility that super heated gases, carbon monoxide or hydrogen cyanide might build inside the dilapidated warehouse. She’d learned from firemen when she treated victims that a rolling structure fire could annihilate an older building in a hurry, but toxic fumes could kill anyone long before the fire got to them. Would she even know the gas was killing her?
Panic ate at her resolve, but she kept going.
Zoey had searched most of the first floor without a sign of Kaity or anyone else. A couple of back rooms were all that remained. With two floors above her, she had to cover ground without wasting time. Until she got upstairs, she had no idea how bad the fire would be higher up.
She pushed herself farther down the hall, making her way to every door, but a loud sound caught her off guard.
“What the—?” She stopped crawling. “Kaity?”
Zoey heard a bang. It jarred her and made her jump. Loud splintering cracks sounded like gunfire, but with the noise reverberating off brick in the cavernous space, she couldn’t tell which way it came from.
“Kaity!” she cried.
As the heat intensified, she crawled faster and deeper into the storehouse, gagging and coughing. She almost turned back, but she decided to scramble toward the last open door. Whoever had set the blaze must’ve done it nearby. The flames were more concentrated toward the rear of the first level.
When she detected a vaguely familiar chemical odor in the air, she realized she’d smelled it before, but she couldn’t place it. The fire must’ve been started using an accelerant, but if the rumor of hostages being held was true, who would’ve set the fire? Why?
A man ran from the last room. He didn’t see her on the floor and tripped over her. His boots smacked hard against her ribs. The blow shocked her and knocked the wind from her lungs. When she took a tumble, her skin scraped rough brick and pain racked her body.
Zoey smelled blood when the man toppled over her. The coppery tainted scent came off him.
“Stop. Who are you? Where’s Kaity?” she screamed. Her vision blurred and her head spun.
Don’t black out. You lose it now and you’re dead.
Dressed in black, the intruder loomed over her like a nightmare, but she didn’t hesitate. Zoey grabbed his jacket in her fist and tightened her grip. When he winced, she noticed the blood draining down his sleeve. He’d been stabbed or shot. Her eyes trailed down to the back of his hand where she saw a tattoo wrapped around his wrist—the head of a snake.
“Police…they’re surrounding the building. You can’t get away with this.” She refused to give up.
“Let go. Now.” His deep gritty voice prickled her skin and her throat clenched tight at the sheer size of the man.
He ignored her and struggled to his feet, but Zoey refused to let go. He was the only clue she had for what happened. With her other hand, she grappled for his leg and yanked. He hit the floor with a miserable groan. She crawled toward him and climbed onto his back, but he flipped her to the ground and pinned her.
“You know where she is. I know you do.” Zoey bucked under his weight until she saw stars. She pummeled him with her fists, but her muscles grew weaker the longer she struggled. In seconds, she lost feeling in her arms and legs.
Sheer panic mixed with a deathlike indifference as she thrashed against him. In the thickening smoke, she couldn’t breathe and her lungs burned from the strain. He loomed over her as her world faded into darkness, marred only by spinning points of light as her final trace of consciousness left her.
Zoey was dying—and she knew it.
© Jordan Dane