The smoke forces me down, the evil, hell-hot stuff stronger than Creeper’s hands. My nose is inches from the stained linoleum floor. A long gray bug with hundreds of synchronized legs runs for his life, tries hiding in my nostril. I snort to blow him away.
Maybe sniffing like that enhances the senses because suddenly I can smell the cotton-blend material of my suit warming to ignition.
Sirens blare on Broad Street. The floor begins to heat up like a pancake griddle.
I wiggle beside Luis to see what’s snagging him. Whoa. No accident here. Luis’s wrists are bound with rope and tied to the stainless steel leg of his four-hundred-pound ice maker. No time to untangle knots. I need a sharp edge.
I spasm makes me cough. Smoke fills my throat and makes me cough again. Dizziness blurs my vision. Probably the first stage of carbon monoxide poisoning.
My heart’s skipping rope as I yank Luis’s new switchblade from his right back pocket.
I hack at the ropes.
But I run out of air before I can free him.
My lips kiss the floor, searching for the smallest taste of oxygen. I cough again, then choke. Maybe getting a spoonful of air. No matter. Smoke fills the restaurant, floor to ceiling. That has to be my last breath inside this burning coffin.
Praying adrenaline will help, I finally slash the rope in two. I jerk Luis’s body from underneath the bar and onto my shoulder. I stagger, reel backward under his weight, but the bar backs me up. I stay on my feet. This is it. Get out now. I can’t take a breath and I can’t stop walking.
Reminds me of my marriage to Susan somehow. I never liked any of the choices she offered.
Through the black rolling smoke and heat, I stumble past the basement stairway, bank left off the twin sinks, then grope along the kitchen’s wooden table. My lungs want to burst.
My head and shoulders begin to outrun my feet, stealing my balance. I can’t see my nose in the blackness.
My right hip bumps the last corner of the kitchen table, then empty space, and I pitch Luis and myself toward a memory of the back door. My shoulder crashes something hard, and I spin onto steps, stumbling enough to lose Luis and fall.
Luis lands in the sturdy arms of a Branchtown fireman.
Nobody bothers to catch me.
It’s early afternoon before the nurses let me in to see a very woozy Luis. The smoke and fire did some minor damage to his lungs, but it’s the concussion that’s going to keep him in the hospital at least over night. The doctors think someone hit him with a pipe.
“What do you mean you can’t do it?” I say. “You have to do it, Susan. Bluefish threatened them. Now he tried to kill Luis.”
“So you claim,” my ex-wife says. “But your word doesn’t count much.”
“I would never lie about our children. How can you even think that?”
“Where am I going to send them, Austin? Disney World? Both my parents are sick. It’s too late to book a sitter for the weekend. And I was counting on you picking them up tomorrow. I’ve got plans. You can’t decide to back out at the last minute.”
“That’s what you think? This story is bullshit just to get out of taking my weekend with them?”
“It’s the kind of thing an unreliable person like yourself would do.”
I take a breath. And another.
“You going to be home for a while?” I say.
“I’m picking up the kids at school in twenty minutes.”
“I’ll try to have someone else call you.”
“Yeah? Who, Carmela? Your secretary?”
“How about Detective Jim Mallory?”
Don’t know exactly what my B.P.D. connections earned Susan in the way of clarification, but I hear later somebody convinced her to swallow my idea. Mallory or a patrolman on Mallory’s orders must have explained why I couldn’t know where the kids were headed, either. Otherwise I’m sure Susan would have called me.