Conner jogged toward the fireman carrying the girl from the front of the building. She was small and blond and for a moment his heart beat sped up.
But it wasn’t Sara. Still, he was glad to see every single survivor they carried from the building.
The building was huge. It had been an elementary school at one time. He knew from the briefing at the scene that the west end of the building was mostly offices and storage space. The east end, where the fire had broken out, was the more “lived in” part of the building where they had a huge common room, a gymnasium with showers and locker rooms, and, of course, the kitchen.
One of the firemen was speculating that they had put something in the microwave that had caused sparks. One of the kids had said something about an explosion, but they hadn’t been able to get a good explanation. Just that they heard a loud boom and that flames and smoke had come pouring out of the kitchen right after that. Most of the kids in the common room had immediately run for the doors. Though Mac had told him there could be up to fifty kids there on any night, the kids were telling them that there had only been a handful in the TV room on the other side of the kitchen.
But from the description they gave and the layout of the building that one of the firemen had, it was clear they would have been trapped if the fire had come out of the kitchen.
In any case, it was taking a hell of a long time to get the blaze under control.
“Okay, sweetheart, I’ve got you,” Conner told the girl as they shifted her from the fireman’s arms to Conner’s.
She immediately burrowed close and wrapped her arms tightly around his neck and burst into tears.
He continued crooning comforting words until they got the rig. Dooley Miller was there with Sierra.
“She’s conscious, I see,” Dooley said.
Conner smiled. “Yep. Though she hadn’t said anything, so I don’t know if she’s making sense.” And she didn’t seem inclined to loosen her grip on him even the tiniest bit.
Dooley studied her for a minute, then he said, “I heard the new running back recruit for the Huskers backed out and is going to Kansas State.”
The girl’s head came up fast and she looked at him. “Travis Humphry?”
“Hey, Tasha,” Dooley greeted with a grin. “You okay?”
Her eyes filled up with tears again, but Conner felt her hold relax slightly. “I don’t know.”
“Well, come here and let me make sure,” Dooley said.
The girl obviously knew and trusted him. She immediately let go of Conner and he swung her feet to the ground. Dooley put an arm around her waist and helped her to the ambulance.
“You sure you’re good?” Conner asked the other man. “I told Gordon I was calling in another rig.”
“Good idea,” Dooley agreed. “Sam and Mac shouldn’t go near anyone. But Kevin and I are fine. We’ll just help out. Get the Methodist guys over here.”
Conner appreciated a cool head in a crisis. “They’re already on their way.”
He turned and nearly got plowed over by Mac Gordon himself. Conner was the quarterback for the best team in the amateur league. He was, unfortunately, periodically plowed over by big guys who didn’t mind hurting him. Still, he was very glad Mac didn’t play. “What’s up?”
He was as anxious as anyone else. He hated the waiting, knowing there were people inside that might need their help, knowing that minutes counted, yet having to hang back while the fire guys did their thing. It was hard. But he kept cool. It was his gift. Perfected over the years of growing up with four younger sisters. It was hard to rile Conner up.
Only four things could really do it and they were named Amanda, Emma, Isabelle and Olivia Dixon.
“Sara texted me.”
Conner perked up. “What? Seriously? She’s not here?” That would be awesome. Not awesome that there were still people inside, but if Sara wasn’t one of them…
“She’s in there,” Mac confirmed. “But they headed in the opposite direction from the kitchen. They went for the showers in the girl’s locker room. She figured the tile wouldn’t burn.”
“There’s no back exit?” Conner asked, started for Cody to tell him the news. “This is an old school for Chrissake.”
“There is, but the door is stuck. Or locked. Or something is against it from the outside. She’s not sure, it just won’t move.”
Conner pulled up short. “She’s on the line now?”
Conner grabbed the phone from Mac. “Sara?”
“Conner, is that you? Oh, my god, are you out there?” She sounded panicky, but not hysterical, which Conner appreciated about her. She had to keep her cool for those kids.
“Yeah, it’s me. We’re gonna get you out of there.”
He wove in and out of firemen, searching for his friend, the Chief.
“Well, listen lady,” Conner said, trying for light and flirtatious like he always was, hoping to reassure her that everything would be fine. “When you get out of there, I’m first in line for mouth to mouth.”
She laughed, sounding tired. Though it wasn’t like he really knew her well enough to know if she sounded tired or not. “When I get out of here, I’m pretty sure I’m going to feel like kissing everybody.”
Goddammit where was Cody?
“That’s why us paramedics do what we do, babe.”
She laughed again, but this time it ended on what was definitely a sob. Conner would know that sound anywhere. His gut tightened and his fist tightened on Mac’s phone.
He stopped suddenly. Mac ran directly into him, sending him two steps forward before he swung around with a scowl. Did the guy have to be right on his ass?
He still didn’t see Cody so he took the phone away from his ear, covered the mouthpiece and bellowed, “Somebody tell me where the fuck Madsen is!”
“Over here!” someone shouted.
He headed in that direction. Back on the phone with Sara he said, “Honey, tell me where you are in the building exactly.”
“The girl’s locker room.”
“Right, but walk me to it. Like from the front doors.” He arrived next to Cody and covered the mouthpiece again for a moment. “Sara’s in the building… and on the phone. She’s going to walk you to where they are.”
Cody lifted the microphone on his headset. “Dennings, listen up,” he barked.
“Okay, Sara, go. I’m right here,” Conner said. “I’m going to repeat everything to Cody.”
Sara started walking him mentally through the building, giving him lefts and rights, things that would be in the rooms, how many doorways to count off, and other information that would lead the firemen inside to where they were at.
“It’s the last doorway in the hallway,” she finally said. “We’re all in here.”
“How many of you?” Conner asked.
“Eight,” she said. “Me and my sister and then six kids.”
Conner repeated the information to Cody, then felt a heavy hand on his shoulder. “Jessica is in there?”
It was Sam Bradford. He’d come over to join Mac.
Conner nodded. “Yeah. And six kids.”
“Ben’s not in there?” Sam asked with a frown.
“Sara, honey, is Ben there?” Conner asked.
“No.” There was a pause. Then she said, “Was he supposed to be?”
Conner repeated the question to the guys.
“We can’t get him on the phone,” Sam said. “We thought maybe he came down here.”
Conner knew Ben Torres from the hospital. He was one of the trauma surgeons so, unfortunately, their paths mostly crossed when Conner and the crew were bringing people in who needed Ben’s skills. But occasionally he’d pass Ben in the hallway or stand in line behind him in the cafeteria. Torres was a nice guy and a hell of a surgeon. Conner’s buddy, Nate, was also a surgeon at St. A’s and he admired Ben a lot.
“Does Jessica know where Ben is?” Conner asked Sara.
Jessica Bradford Torres was a nurse and was the head of the ER. Conner knew her well too.
“He’s supposed to be at home with Ava,” Sara reported. “Jessica can’t get her phone to work in here. None of the others will, actually. We figure it’s all the cement and stuff. Don’t know why mine’s working.”
Conner made himself smile as he replied. “’Cuz we were meant to connect, Sara. You should just accept this as one more sign.”
“Conner.” She said it in that sweet, chiding tone that she always used when he flirted with her. He loved it.
She was always going to turn him down. He knew that. And if she was married to anyone but Mac Gordon, he probably would have laid off a long time ago. She was taken. He got it. But wow, it was such a great way to antagonize Mac. And Gordon had plenty of fun antagonizing Conner when he’d been a rookie and filling in on their crew, trying to build up his hours of experience. It was only fair.
Plus, Sara Gordon was it. She was the perfect woman. Gorgeous, funny, smart, sweet, baked like nobody’s business and blushed so adorably whenever he flirted. If he didn’t have a crush on her it would have been a sad commentary on his intelligence.
Conner’s attention was pulled to Cody—and the deep scowl his friend wore.
“They can’t get through. They’re blocked getting into that hallway.”
Conner’s stomach twisted. They’d have to find another way. And quick. If the fire was blocking that hallway, it was getting too close for comfort. Sara was right about the concrete of the locker rooms not burning, but that wasn’t the only risk in a fire. Smoke inhalation and toxic fumes were a real risk as was the chance for an explosion that would propel debris that could seriously injure someone. Debris like concrete pieces, for instance.
“There’s a door in back.”
They all turned. Ben Torres had arrived.
“Where?” Cody took off at a run, Ben right behind him.
“The door opens into the backyard. It’s not right by the locker rooms, but you can come from the back instead of the front where the flames are.”
Conner, Mac and Sam were right behind them.
“The door’s locked,” Sara said in Conner’s ear. “We couldn’t budge it.”
“We’re gonna need tools,” Conner called to Cody.
“Thomas, Buckely, Peterson, come with me!” Cody shouted. “Bring the tool box”
The door was, indeed, locked. Tight. It took three fireman leaning on the crowbar to finally pop the lock and wrench the door open. No smoke billowed out—a wonderful sign that the fire wasn’t anywhere near this area.
Conner turned immediately to Mac as the heavy metal door swung open, bracing a hand on the bigger man’s shoulder. “No way, big guy. You don’t have equipment on and this isn’t your show.”
Mac strained forward for just a moment, then he took a deep breath and leaned back on his heels. “Okay.”
Conner knew that Mac knew he was right, but adrenaline was pumping hard and the guy’s wife—his pregnant wife—was just inside, in danger.
“Here, talk to Sara,” Conner said, thrusting the phone at Mac.
Mac put the phone to his ear. “Hey, princess.”
Conner almost got choked up at the emotion in Mac’s voice.
“I love you too.” Then Mac cleared his throat. “Here.” He handed the phone back. “She wants to say something else to you.”
“Conner, you better be close by. Because you are getting that kiss,” Sara said.
He grinned. He’d take it too. There would likely never be another opportunity and he was all for taking advantage of good fortune.
“I’ll be the good-looking guy dressed as a paramedic,” he told her.
She laughed and there was no tension now. “Noted.”
He handed the phone back to Mac. “Lucky bastard,” he said.
“I know,” Mac said sincerely. Then he put the phone back to his ear.
“Let’s go, Mac.” Kevin Campbell appeared out of the darkness, Dooley at his side.
“Yep, come on Sam,” Dooley said, gesturing in the direction they’d come. “Let’s get out of these guys’ way.”
The firemen were suited up. They pulled their helmets and masks into place and then turned on their high beam flashlights and plunged into the darkness inside the Center.
Stop back tomorrow for Part Four!