IT STARTED like any other call: the loudspeaker blaring through the station for Kevin Flint and the rest of Station 7’s B-shift firefighters to hop on the engines, don their gear, and go. They reached the area quickly, in less than five minutes. Kevin was new to this station and this part of town, but he’d been down this street before. It was filled with little cafes and boutiques, and now holiday decorations adorned the streetlights and shop fronts. The city closed the street off two Sundays a month. It was that kind of charming, upscale street. The kind most of the guys on this engine never visited.
Christmas was a week away, and the boutiques were packed: full of merchandise, shoppers, and flammable decorations. It was one of the worst weeks of the year. From atop Engine 21, Kevin could smell smoke before he even saw the flames as they approached the address, red-gold licks curling into the night sky from the upper story, illuminating the sidewalk. The cops had cordoned off the street, but bunches of gawkers gathered and stared. A few cheered as the engine stopped.
This one didn’t smell like the typical industrial fire or piney holiday tree conflagration. It smelled exactly like Christmas: aromas of ginger, cinnamon, and sugar and the acrid note of cookies left in the oven too long. The scents stirred up memories of warm kitchens and happy times.
Kevin glanced toward the building and noticed the sign: Bancroft’s Buns. He would have laughed at the name if the place weren’t burning down, but it explained the delectable base notes in the smoke. He wanted to get inside, but they wouldn’t go in until the IC—Incident Commander—Captain Riggs advised them on the situation and the layout of the building. The team huddled, in full gear, adrenaline racing, eager to get into the building.
“The fire started in the industrial kitchen, in back. Two teams approach from the front.” Captain Riggs pointed to Perez, Walsh, Taylor, and Dunne. “Flint and Gilbert, work with Engines 4 and 9 in the rear, mopping up behind their crew.”
“What are we looking at? Layout, materials, hazards?” Kevin asked as he and Gilbert and the captain jogged through the alley to join the engines and crew from Station 2.
“Oh, you’ve never been here? I forgot,” Captain Riggs replied. “The kitchen is in back, lots of possible accelerants from cooking ingredients. Upstairs there’s an apartment and a storeroom, with separate staircases. The storeroom is already involved, but the apartment looks like it hasn’t ignited.”
Kevin nodded and raced toward the first-due engines already parked in the rear of the building. The lot was half-full of cars. Odd for ten o’clock on a Wednesday night. The shop wasn’t even open.
Two ambulances had arrived and parked outside the collapse zone. Cops and EMTs herded bakery employees away from the building and toward the ambulances to be examined. Smoke billowed from the few windows, the scent much stronger here. Cinnamon, ginger, and vanilla made Kevin’s mouth water. He locked down his SCBA—self-contained breathing apparatus—and gave the OK to Gilbert, and he grabbed the first folds of hose and headed in, Gilbert hoisting the next section a few feet behind.
The burnt-sugar smell permeated even his mask, but the flames didn’t require much work. By the time they’d arrived, most of the flammable items in the kitchen had burned through and were smoldering, while the cement floor and heavy appliances were damaged by the heat but hadn’t burned. The storeroom upstairs was still on fire, and Kevin and Gilbert concentrated on making sure the downstairs fires were all extinguished. The retail storefront had barely been touched, thanks to a metal door separating it from the kitchen. It had contained the fire like a submarine door keeps water out of compartments, but the blaze had left the metal twisted and melted off its hinges, while causing only minor smoke damage.
Assured they had finished their tasks, Kevin and Gilbert had headed outside for a status update when the captain called all the crews out of the building. There were no visible flames, but some hot spots would undoubtedly flare up before their work was finished. They’d take a break and stick around to make sure.
With the water pumps relatively quiet and his SCBA mask off, Kevin could overhear random discussions as the firefighters sucked in fresh air and munched protein bars to replenish their energy before they went back in. He heard a few employees sobbing as they clustered around the ambulances. No serious injuries had been reported. Everyone had gotten out with little more than minor smoke-inhalation issues. Odd for there to be more than a dozen people working so late in a bakery. Maybe they had a lot of holiday orders to fill.
“Did someone get Quincy?” a man’s voice asked.
“Paul said he’d get him,” a woman replied.
“Paul’s in the other ambulance. I don’t see Quincy,” another woman responded.
“He’s still in my apartment,” the man said, his voice rising with concern.
Before Kevin or anyone else could react, the man had pulled away from the EMTs and rushed back into the building. Kevin was closest to the entrance, so he pulled his mask and helmet on and raced in after him. Smoke floated up from smoldering beams and pieces of wall and ceiling, but he caught up to the guy at the base of a staircase.
“Stop, sir. Go outside. I’ll handle this.”
“The dog. He’s in my apartment. I can hear him!” The guy pulled out of Kevin’s grasp and headed upstairs with Kevin right on his heels.
He knew what might happen before it did, and he wasn’t fast enough to stop it. The guy grabbed for the doorknob and pulled his hand back in shock. The metal knob was still hot from the fire, even if this area hadn’t burned. The stairs were scorched and damp, and Kevin didn’t have a good enough idea of how stable their supporting structure was. Neither of them should be here right now.
“Go outside. I’ll get your dog.”
“Yes,” Kevin shouted. He couldn’t just drag the guy down the steps, but he wanted to. He shoved him out of the way and reached for the knob, warm even through his thick gloves. He could hear the dog whimpering on the other side.
When he opened the door, the Irish setter inside reared back in fear. Kevin knew he looked like a spaceman. He pulled the mask away to speak.
“Here, doggie. Come here.” He reached out and waited for the dog to come. “Quincy?”
No luck. Kevin went inside and the dog ran into the bedroom. There was smoke near the ceiling, but the dog had been safe at floor level. Kevin crouched after him, trying to keep his own lungs free of smoke without the SCBA on. “Quincy?” Still no luck.
“Hey, bakery guy!” Kevin shouted, wishing he didn’t have to. He hoped the guy was outside, safe, and not hovering.
“What? Where’s Quincy?”
“Still in the bedroom.” Kevin took a step into the room. He couldn’t fail to notice a feather boa—in rainbow colors—draped across the top of the mirror and a stack of magazines with buff, shirtless guys on the night table as he followed the sound of the dog’s thumping tail. He was under the bed.
The guy took a few paces into the room. “Quincy, we have to go now. Who wants a walkie?” he said in that tone people used to talk to dogs.
Kevin crouched on the floor and noticed a little basket on the lower shelf of the night table. Was that…? No, it couldn’t be. Or was it…? He looked again, thinking he’d spotted a thick black dildo. On third glance it was just a flashlight nestled with a couple of candles and a pack of matches. In winter the power went out fairly often in town, thanks to Christmas trees and people overdecorating their homes in garish lights. In fact, Kevin kept a flashlight and candles next to his bed too.
He reached under the bed and instead of feeling a piece of dog, he ended up with another magazine. Not a fashion or workout mag. This one deserved to be under the bed. He tossed it onto the bed and waved the guy over. Suddenly he looked a little redder in the face, but he bent down.
Kevin’s radio crackled. “Flint, what’s going on there? I’m sending someone in with you.”
“No,” he replied. “Just getting a dog. He’s scared, under the bed. Out in a minute tops.”
“On the way.” He turned back to the guy. “You have ten seconds to get the dog or I’m carrying your crazy ass down those stairs. With or without the damned dog.”
“Oh, when you put it that way….” The guy’s voice was flirty, as if they weren’t in a building that might collapse at any second.
Below, Kevin heard a loud whooshing and cracking noise. Ceiling was falling down on the lower level. “Now.” He reached for the guy’s waist, ready to throw him over his shoulder—he’d probably really enjoy that, Kevin thought with even more anger.
“There’s a flare-up, Flint. Gilbert’s coming in with the hose to get you out,” the radio blared.
The guy crouched down, hand under the bed, and this time Kevin did grab his waist and start pulling him up, but the guy came out with his hand on the dog’s collar and swept the dog into his arms. Kevin bent down and grabbed the guy, pulling him onto his shoulders in a fireman’s carry, causing him to shout and drop Quincy on top of the bed. Kevin bundled up the shivering dog and made his way down the stairs. He’d forgotten to do up his mask, and smoke stung his eyes, nose, and throat.
The stairs were wetter and more slippery this time; Gilbert had doused them with water so the flare-up wouldn’t travel to the apartment. Kevin made his way down. Thankfully, neither the guy nor the dog squirmed. Apparently, both understood their lives were at risk now. Gilbert and two others had their hoses trained on their path to the door, and before they were clear, a piece of flaming ceiling fell. One of them aimed a low-powered stream of water at Kevin and his passengers, and they made it outside before anyone was injured.
He dumped the guy—now dripping wet—and the dog—also dripping wet—on the pavement past the fire truck outside the collapse zone.
“Th-thank you!” the bedraggled guy said.
“Fucking idiot!” Kevin couldn’t hold it in any longer. “Your stunt put three more lives at risk—not counting you. If it hadn’t been a dog, I would have been happy to let you go and get yourself killed.” Kevin couldn’t say any more because he started coughing. He’d inhaled more smoke than he thought. The burnt taste lingered in his throat and nostrils. Familiar, but he’d never get used to it.
EMTs ran toward them, one taking each of them and shuttling them to the bumper of the ambulance for a checkup. Gilbert and the captain came over to see how Kevin was.
“Flint, we need to talk when we get back to the station.” The captain had his thick eyebrows so drawn up they looked like one dark smudge across his forehead. Kevin figured he’d get in trouble for at least two reasons. One, for going after the guy without his gear secured properly and then for calling him a fucking idiot, even though everyone would agree that’s what he was. Kevin just nodded and the captain walked away.
While the EMTs asked him questions and checked his vitals, Kevin overheard snippets of the conversation between Dumbass Bakery Guy and his employees, punctuated by Dumbass’s coughing. Served him right to be suffering at least as much as Kevin was right now. His EMT was treating the burn on the bakery guy’s hand, wrapping it in bright white gauze.
“Alex, what happened to your hand?”
“A little burn. Nothing worse than I’d get in a typical day in the kitchen.”
The guy’s almost cheerful tone was at odds with his damp hair and wet shirt. He looked like something a cat would choose to leave outside in a rainstorm. But a handful of people came up to check on his condition and mother him. Mostly women. No surprise there. For some reason they flocked to gay men like this one. The one male employee had blond hair, short on the sides and longer up top in the twink style. The boyfriend? They didn’t seem too touchy-feely.
“Alex, how did it look inside? Will we be able to go back in, open before Christmas?”
“No, Bette, I don’t think so. It’s all just black and wet, from what I could see. Only my apartment seemed okay. Did you hear anything about the shop? Where’s Lacey?”
“There isn’t much damage there. And the storeroom? We had all the gingerbreads in there,” Bette said.
“Alex, I’m here! Your hand!” a girl, presumably Lacey, cried as she came up to the bakery guy—Alex. The girl had straight blonde hair and lots of visible piercings. She wore a bakery smock like the other employees.
“I don’t know. We’ll have to wait until they let me back in.”
“I’m afraid no one’s going in there until tomorrow.” The captain had come back to talk to the owner, though he threw a few warning glances in Kevin’s direction. “We need to watch for flare-ups tonight and then tomorrow send in the building inspectors and the arson crew.”
“Arson?” Lacey asked in a wavering voice. “Someone set the fire? Who? Why?”
“We don’t know anything for certain yet,” the captain replied. “We investigate everything.”
“I didn’t even see the fire start. Smelled burning, but in a bakery kitchen, it’s nothing surprising. It wasn’t until flames started creeping up the wall that I noticed,” Bakery Guy told the captain.
“You were in the kitchen at the time?”
“Yes, but….” Alex stopped. “I don’t remember.”
“You’re still feeling the effects of smoke inhalation and shock. We can wait until tomorrow to get a full statement. Can you have everyone who was inside come by the station in the morning for that?”
“Sure,” Alex said. “Unless I can open the shop?”
“Definitely not in the morning. No promises on when, though. I’ll let you know tomorrow.”
“Can I get inside my apartment?”
“Not tonight. Maybe not even tomorrow.” The captain patted the guy on the arm and went back to the rest of the firefighting crew.
Kevin tried to get up and follow, but the EMT wasn’t ready to release him. “You need to stay here until I say you’re okay to go back on duty.”
“I’m fine,” Kevin said, but he didn’t sound very convincing when he coughed after only those two words. The rest of the crew was going back inside to check for hot spots, and he was stuck on a gurney in the damned bus hooked up to a stupid machine. He was fine. A little cough wouldn’t hurt. He pulled the EKG things off and grabbed for his helmet, then marched back to the captain’s parking lot powwow with a deputy chief.
“Flint, did the EMT clear you?”
The captain shook his head. “You’ve still got a wire hanging off your chest.”
The EMT who ran up behind Kevin didn’t make his lie any more believable.
“But I’m fine, Cap.”
“No, you’re not. You’re going to the hospital to get checked out, and don’t come back until you have a clean bill of health signed by a doctor. I think I’ll put you on the desk for this one. Handle the paperwork; liaise with the arson guys and the victim. By the time that’s done, you should be ready for active duty.”
“Aw, captain. I’m fine.” No one wanted desk duty or paperwork. And certainly not liaising with the idiot who apparently owned the place.
“That may be, but I want it in writing.”
The EMT tugged Kevin’s arm and brought him back to the ambulance. He thought he heard a few “little girl” comments from the other firefighters. He yanked his arm away from the EMT and strode back to the ambulance under his own power, grumbling under his breath all the ways he wanted to rip Dumbass Bakery Guy’s limbs apart.
If the desk duty wasn’t bad enough, those “little girl” comments ate at him. He couldn’t afford that kind of talk, even in joking. The last thing he needed was for the guys in his station to find out he was gay. It was his third station assignment in two years, and he needed to make this one work. Otherwise he’d been warned he might not get a fourth assignment. Even being one of the Flameproof Flints wouldn’t save his bacon.
He was a third generation firefighter in this city. His granddad had been Deputy Chief, and his father held that position now. If the current chief retired in time, his father would make chief. But he couldn’t be seen showing favoritism to his boys. Kevin and his brothers, two of them firefighters and the third a cop, had had to earn their stripes.
Dad was one tough son of a bitch. He barely spoke to Kevin anymore. Kevin wasn’t sure whether it was because he hadn’t proven himself as a firefighter compared to his two older brothers. They couldn’t put a foot wrong, and Kevin couldn’t put one right as far as Dad was concerned.
Or maybe it had to do with the time Dad caught Kevin on his bed with another boy when he was fourteen. He threw the other kid out, but never discussed the occurrence with Kevin. His mom had come upstairs and given him a hug. “I love you, Kevin. I’m here if you want to talk.”
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was alive and well in their house, even now. That was fine with Kevin. He wasn’t about to broadcast being gay to his fellow firefighters. He’d left his last station because one of them had seen him coming out of a gay bar in the next town over. He couldn’t take the risk.
“Flint, the bus is ready to take you to the hospital. Get your ass in there!” The captain left no room for discussion, and Kevin followed directions. An EMT helped him up the steps and sat him on a gurney. “Buckle up.” She hopped out and that’s when Kevin noticed he wasn’t alone.
Sitting on the other gurney, shirt open and a web of wires attached to his bare chest, was Dumbass Bakery Guy. Underneath that damp pastel blue shirt the guy had a smooth, gorgeous chest with large pink nipples, peaked from the December chill. Kevin’s gaze lingered for a few moments before he glanced up at the guy’s face, and into his bright blue eyes, partially covered by long, damp bangs.
Dumbass Bakery Guy was pretty fucking hot. And he noticed Kevin staring and smiled. “Thank you. And I don’t just mean for saving me and the dog.” The flirty tone left no doubt that he wouldn’t mind showing some appreciation.
So much for keeping a low profile and not taking any risks. He’d be all over this guy if they’d met at Rangers or another club, but the guy was too much of a dumbass for Kevin to take a stupid risk over him. But it didn’t stop Kevin from wondering what his lips would taste like, or what kind of sound he’d make when Kevin sucked on one of those juicy-looking nipples.
, not . What the hell was he thinking? This idiot had almost gotten himself and Kevin killed. And he had gotten Kevin a reprimand. He suspected the desk assignment was more for punishment than because Kevin wasn’t physically able to do his job.
“We didn’t get to meet formally. I’m Alex Bancroft. I own Bancroft’s Buns.”
Kevin glared at him and lay back on the gurney. He closed his eyes and threw an arm over his face to block out the light. Why couldn’t he get the image of Alex Bancroft dripping wet out of his mind? The blue shirt clung to his upper body, the nipples tight, hard buds. Only this time they weren’t in the burned-out shell of his bakery kitchen; they were in Kevin’s shower, and he was peeling the shirt back from Alex’s shoulders.
Kevin felt his cock swelling at the image. Thank God he was still wearing his turnout pants.
The siren stopped wailing and Kevin knew they were within a block of the hospital, a quiet zone. A minute later the ambulance stopped and the back door opened. The EMTs took Bancroft out on the gurney, but as they popped the wheels out, he turned around to face Kevin.
“The captain said you’ll be handling my investigation. So I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Fucking dumbass, Kevin said over and over to himself. And now he couldn’t avoid the guy without pissing off his new captain.
* * * *
IN THE hospital Alex Bancroft waited for a doctor to come by and check him out. His throat still burned, but he only coughed a little now and then. He hoped he wouldn’t have to stay overnight. Things really couldn’t get much worse than they were right now. The fire had been the scariest thing he’d been through in his entire life. Maybe not the scariest, but close. Certainly the worst thing that had happened in many years.
At least no one was hurt. That was the most important thing. But from what he’d seen, the kitchen was completely destroyed and part of the roof had fallen in. He wished he hadn’t seen it, though it would look even worse in the daylight. He’d go back first thing in the morning and get whatever information he could. He had to find out when he could start repairs so he could open again.
While he waited, Lacey came to sit with him.
“How’d you get in here, Lace?”
“I lied and said I was your sister.”
She was in spirit, if not legally. “You’re blonde. How did anyone believe that?”
“No one has their natural hair color anymore. The triage nurse just waved me through. I must not have looked like much of a threat.” She grinned. She had colorful tattoos down both arms, but with her chef’s smock on, no one could see. She had a nose and lip piercing and about ten piercings on just one ear. She probably set the hospital metal detector off. He knew of more than one other piercing she couldn’t easily remove in public.
“Thanks for coming. I hate hospitals.”
“I know. Besides, what else was I going to do?” She sat on the edge of the bed and planted a kiss on his forehead. She wiped at his face with a thumb.
“You’ve got soot on you.” Then she started crying so softly only he could tell. He’d heard it so many times before. “And your hand!” She glanced down at the bandages. He wished she hadn’t reminded him. It hurt. Throbbed. They’d given him a pain pill in the ambulance and it hadn’t stopped the pain. He wondered how much it would hurt if he hadn’t swallowed the pill. He had to stop thinking like that.
“Hey, I’m the one in the hospital ER. Why are you crying?”
“Alex, I was so scared. The fire was… awful. I-I-I—”
“I know.” He reached up to cradle her in his arms the best he could while he was lying down with a bandaged hand. Hot tears dripped onto his face, and he held on tighter.
“We’ve been through worse. We’ll get through this. We’re safe. Everyone is safe.”
“I know.” She sobbed.
“Robbie has him. He’ll keep him tonight or as long as you want.”
“That’s good. I wish Marcia had asked him to look after Quincy in the first place. Then I wouldn’t have gone back after him. How could I have forgotten him? I feel so terrible. I’ll make him some special dog treats when…. I don’t know when. When the kitchen’s working again. Whenever that is.”
“You’re staying with me when you get out of here. Don’t try and refuse.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t. I can’t do much with this.” He held up the bandaged hand. “You might have to help me piss though. Can you do that?”
She sat up and looked him in the eye, then gave him a soft punch on the shoulder. “We’ll get you a pair of sweat pants so you won’t need any help in that department.”
“What kind of best friend are you?”
“I’m more like your sister than a friend. And sisters should not be touching a brother’s junk even for medical reasons.” She wiped the tears away and smiled. “Maybe you could get that hunky fireman who carried you out of the building to help….” She winked.
Alex frowned. “He’s hot, and not just in a burning building sort of way. But I think I ruined any chance of that.”
“Like there was a chance of that?” She grinned. “You think he’s gay?”
“I’m almost positive, based on the way he was checking me out in the ambulance. But he’s pretty annoyed at having to save me and Quincy. I tried to chat with him in the ambulance, and you know that phrase ‘if looks could kill’?”
“I’m at least six feet under.”
“I don’t think it would have worked out under the best of circumstances.”
“What do you mean?”
He shrugged. She wouldn’t be able to understand how a guy in this day and age could be as far into the closet as Alex’s sexy rescuer. The way the guy was watching him in the ambulance made that abundantly clear. Alex didn’t have time for that. He’d never hidden who he was or who he wanted to be with. Even when he should have. Even when it got him in trouble. He’d been through so much because of it, and he’d never even consider a man who wasn’t capable of being himself.
The doctor came in and shooed Lacey out of the cubicle. She rechecked his vitals, unwrapped and looked at his hand, and ordered a chest X-ray.
“Doc, do I really need one? I’m not hurt except for my hand.” He dreaded getting X-rays. They usually required painful explanations.
“You’re coughing enough that I want to check for damage. Make sure you didn’t inhale any dangerous particles.”
“Okay.” He gave in and she left.
A nurse rebandaged his hand before an orderly wheeled him down the hall for the films. When that was over, they let Lacey back in to wait with him in the curtained cubicle. Sounds of more patients being wheeled in filled the air around them though they couldn’t see what was going on. He heard shouts from medical staff and the curtain fluttered a few times as someone ran for a more urgent case. It was over an hour before the doc came back in.
She gave him an appraising look, and he knew she’d spotted the old fractures and injuries. “Your lungs look fine. I’m prescribing you an inhaler to use if you have any residual coughing.” She paused and he silently thanked her for not mentioning anything else she’d seen. “You should have your regular doc see you in a couple of days to follow up on that. Rebandage the hand daily and keep it dry. I’ll give you a prescription for a topical pain gel, and one for pills.” She flipped through his chart again and looked back at him. “No allergies?”
“Okay.” She grabbed a laptop from the counter and tapped a bunch of keys. “The release papers and prescriptions are printing. A nurse will bring those, have you sign a few things, and send you on your merry way.”
“Hey, Bancroft.” The doctor looked up from the chart again. “Are you related to Bancroft’s Buns?”
“Yeah, it’s my shop. Was. We had a fire tonight and….”
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. I guess no one else was hurt, or I would have heard by now.”
“Just me, and a firefighter who came in with me for a checkup.”
“I love your cupcakes. All of them. I purposely avoid Third Street so I won’t be tempted, which is why I didn’t recognize you. But friends and colleagues bring them to me, and I just can’t say no.” She patted her thighs. “I should be saying no much more. But I always get a gingerbread man every Christmas. Any chance of those this year?”
Alex shook his head. “We were going to start selling them tomorrow, but they were lost in the fire. And with this”—he held up his bandaged hand—“I won’t be baking anytime soon.”
“I wish I could give you a pill for that—or to repair the bakery.” She gave a sad smile. “I’d say Happy Holidays, but that might be a little tricky this year.”
“Everyone’s okay, and that’s what counts.” He smiled back, but by now the meds were wearing off and the weight of what had happened started to sink in. He wanted to hurry up and get going so he could fill the prescription, but hiding behind pain meds wouldn’t do anyone any real good. He knew that from experience. “Happy Holidays to you.”
“Thanks.” The doctor got up, grabbed her laptop, and gave them a small wave as she left. The curtain fluttered behind her.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to do the gingerbread men this year. And the house. What about the house?” Lacey’s eyes widened. “We practiced it twice already! The auction’s five days away and we don’t have anything.”
Alex shook his head. “Don’t think about that now. We’ll find another way to help Home Sweet Home and the kids out. I’ll just make a cash donation to cover the amount the gingerbread cookies and house would bring.”
“How can you afford that when you don’t even know how much the repairs will cost?”
He hadn’t thought about the repairs. “Won’t the insurance cover it? Isn’t that why I pay for insurance?”
“You’re right. I forgot about that.” Her smile returned, though at a lower power than before. “The insurance should take care of everything.”
* * * *
THE next morning things looked even worse than Alex thought. Lacey drove him to the bakery after breakfast. There was a police car and another with a fire department logo on the door, but no one was in the parking lot.
The air smelled like burned wood and plastic and overbaked cookies. Even the slight winter crispness to the air didn’t cool down Alex’s anxiety as he raced toward the employee entrance. What was left of the door had been propped open with a chunk of wood.
Alex stepped inside. “Hello?”
“Who’s there?” A uniformed police officer wearing a hard hat moved swiftly toward the door, followed by the hunky firefighter and another man, both in uniforms. Alex tried not to notice how good his rescuer looked in the dark blue. He was wearing his helmet, so Alex couldn’t see his hair. The dark uniform would make the pale-brown hair look almost blond. He recalled that detail from the short trip in the ambulance, when the guy had his helmet off.
“Sir? Are you listening?” The cop was talking to him.
“You are not allowed in here.”
“It’s my property. I’m the owner.”
“That doesn’t matter. The fire department is here to investigate and secure the site. You can’t come in here without protective headgear.”
“Give me a hat.”
“I can’t do that. I detain you if you won’t leave voluntarily.”
“Wait outside, please,” Alex’s firefighter said. At least they were still on speaking terms. “We’re almost done.”
“Okay.” Alex turned toward the door. He could wait. He had nothing else to do. He wondered if he could open the shop. Outside he spoke to Lacey. “Let’s go around front and make sure the retail space is secured.”
The front of the shop looked almost untouched. There were a few dark smudges where smoke had come through the vents, but otherwise the place appeared fine. They could open, if they had anything to sell. Alex unlocked the front door and went behind the counter to flip on the lights.
“What’s wrong?” Lacey asked.
“They must have turned the power off. But if we can get it turned back on, we could open the shop.”
“That’s a great idea. But you gave everyone time off until after Christmas, remember? We don’t have any help even if we found another commercial kitchen.”
“We can figure something out, Lacey.” Alex got up and went to the refrigerator case containing soft drinks and grabbed a couple of bottles of peach tea. He handed one to Lacey. They sipped for a few minutes. Then Alex’s cell phone buzzed. It was the firemen. Alex and Lacey got up and walked to the back parking lot and waited to hear the worst.
“I’m Kevin Flint,” the hunky fireman introduced himself, but he didn’t shake hands or crack even a remote smile. Joe Friday on looked like a party animal compared to this grim fellow.
“There’s severe structural damage. The place is unsafe for any occupants. You’ll need to secure the premises and have a contractor cover up the holes in the walls and roof to prevent any additional damage. The arson team will need a key and any combinations or security codes.”
“How long will that take?” Alex asked.
“A week or two. An investigator is in there now making a preliminary report, but until he does more tests, gets statements, et cetera, there won’t be a final determination of the cause.”
“I thought a cake must have caught fire in one of the ovens,” Lacey said.
“Save it for the report.”
“You’re not being very helpful,” Alex replied.
“We have processes and procedures. It requires following directions, though I can see you have trouble with that.”
“What does that mean?”
“We told you not to come in here last night….”
“I had to get the dog.”
“You should have thought of the dog sooner, or told one of the emergency workers. You don’t run into a burning building yourself.”
“It wasn’t burning at the time.”
“Look, Mr. Buns, uh, Bancroft, I don’t bake cakes and you don’t decide when a building is safe. Can we agree on that?”
“You really are a dick, aren’t you?” Lacey said. She got in Flint’s face and put her hand on his chest as if about to push him.
“Lacey…,” Alex said.
The cop came over. “Is there a problem here? Kev?”
Up close Alex noticed the cop’s nametag: FLINT. They looked like brothers. The cop was pretty hot too, but he’d already threatened to arrest Alex. Clearly the Flint family had it out for him.
“No problem, Tommy.”
“Can I get some files, records, some clothes? There’s a safe in the office and one in my apartment. Did they burn too?”
“No,” Fireman Flint said. “I’ll get you a hat and escort you while you take a few essentials out, but we’ll need to make sure none of it is evidence.”
“Fair enough.” Alex nodded, pleased hard-assed Flint had softened his tone however miniscule the improvement.
“Want to bring your dog in too?” Flint asked.
That ruined it. Alex officially hated the guy. What a damn shame.