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Saturday, 25 April 2015

'On a Shout' - part 2 of 2

Firefighting - Wikipedia commons

 
ON A SHOUT

Part 2 of 2

Nik Morton

 

The white helmet of Reynolds, the Guv, was visible in the crowd at the entrance to the hotel. Everywhere was glistening wet.

            Sub Officer Lewis took some men with the pump escape, while Gorton headed for the team in the BA control van and clambered up the metal steps. 'Looks pretty bad,' he observed as he entered the submarine glow of the van.

            Two men sat in front of an array of video screens; both sides of the van were choked with electronic switches, indicators and buttons, wires clustered and snaking. He shut the door, cut off the outside sounds of chaos.

            One of the men nodded, swivelled his chair. Hyslop, the BA team controller, also looked tired. He lifted the earphones from his curly black hair and let them hang on his neck.

            'It's bloody awful, this one, Bill,' he said. 'Drones penetrated to the centre before being incinerated. Yes, it's so bloody hot...' He flicked a switch and a computer graphic moved on one screen. 'This is a plan based on the drone-pix. As you can see, there's a central hotel tower block in the middle of a paved quadrangle. All access to the quad is barred by fallen debris and fire.

            'We're getting out all the neighbouring residents, but the central block is isolated. We need to send in a search party to rig ladders from the surrounding rooftops to the tower.'

            Gorton didn't hesitate. 'I'll need at least four men, and an IR-TV with talkback.' Inwardly he felt cold at the prospect; the nightmare of this morning's earlier fire resurfaced. His scorched brow tingled in fearful expectation. It was as though his whole organism were cringing, urging him to abrogate his self-destructive need to help other people.

            Hyslop swivelled round, briefly eyed his companion; that young man wore a badly burned face and looked away noncommittally. 'Walker,' he announced through the tannoy system, 'Stewart, Perkins, Bulmer, report to BA Van No.2 at once.'

            Not one was reluctant, of course, though only an idiot would face the prospect with total equanimity. All four were good and tried men; Walker had saved Gorton's life some months ago: how many fires since?

            Equipment checks were made hastily.

            Then, garbed in delta suits with breathing apparatus, Gorton and his team entered the fire.

            Fireman Walker held the charged hose, nozzle on spray to shield them from some of the intense heat. Metal ladders were carried by Perkins and Bulmer. Fireman Stewart held the camera whose light switched to infra-red, when the heat permitted, to afford an improved view of the smoke-filled interior; it also transmitted a TV picture back to Hyslop in the BA control van.

***

An age had passed.

            The first flight of stairs was behind them.

            Each foot was placed carefully, lest the treads or floor, weakened by fire or rot, gave way to plunge them into the rubble and flames below...

            At this moment his nerves wanted to shriek; it was all he could do to hold himself in check, then to lead once more. His body could not comprehend why he must go deeper into the building, higher, continually putting himself in an impossible situation. Dreams - no, nightmares, for he had no dreams - frequently ensnared him: he would be trapped, cut off; with only flames for company: the purging, purifying and transforming quality of fire.

            He blinked sweat away, mustn't go on like this. Protected as he was, Gorton was still uncomfortably aware of the heat. His flesh glowed and itched unpleasantly, and pockets of warm sweat collected in the small of his back and loins. Water-cooled suits had proved unsuitable as the water quickly heated up in these conditions; besides, they were too easily snagged and punctured.

            Badly burned children were in their path, having fallen down the stairwell. Depression threatened to swamp him again. He needed to save someone soon, to experience the satisfaction, to relieve the awful inadequacy that perpetually hovered.

            He was constantly alert for a sudden build-up of super-heated gases (God knows what these Orientals hoarded in their rooms!) which might detonate in a ball of flame, scorching all in its path. Mackeson had gone this morning. He'd been in the flashover's path; there was nothing he could have done about it, except pick up the pieces. He was quite good at that: picking up the pieces.

            And the children's hospital had been completely razed; the only evidence of human tenancy was the small singed cuddly bear, thrown onto the car-park, since spattered in oil and dirty water. This memento was now in his pocket, damp against his side. As they stepped onto a landing, they passed through a heat-band of high temperature gases that built up at each ceiling level, threatening to toast them. Gorton's thickly insulated yellow torch shone ahead, picked out the stone stairs to the attic rooms. Beyond was the roof. Access may be possible from there...

            Tired, wet and chilled mentally, he checked his watch: only forty minutes had passed. Safety measures had reduced lately; he was to stay as long as it took. He turned, signalled to the others to move on -

            - and the wall fell on top of them.

            Perkins had been next to the wall and took the full force; partly covered in dust clouds, the caved-in floor gaped beside them: ladder and Perkins, gone. The rest received bruising and cuts only. Incredibly, Stewart was unhurt, still filming with obstinate dedication.

***

‘You’re a stubborn fellow,’ remarked the doctor. ‘You should be dead…’ He felt he should be too. The dead were the lucky ones – who’d said that? ‘What is there to live for now?’ he heard, some poor soul in the prefabricated waiting-room. Memories evoked sensory triggers. He smelled the sweat and urine, untended faeces, formaldehyde. ‘Why bring children into this, what is there to look forward to?’ Life, he wanted to say, but his own pain wouldn’t let him. Life itself. In the final analysis, it’s all we’ve got…

***

Walker still leading, they finally reached the topmost landing where there was little fire yet. But the rising heat was intense. The landing had given way in places. They had to use the ladder to span a wide hole. Abruptly the hose jerked sideways and pulled Walker with it. Water sputtered and died. Walker fell onto the ladder and managed to hold on, hanging there. A metal beam fell and plaster walls crumbled. Bulmer was knocked down as he knelt to hold Walker’s hand. Bulmer’s scream echoed in their earphones as he fell. Mesmerised, Stewart still pointed the camera.

            Gorton urged Stewart to cross and hastened him up onto the roof. ‘Try to locate a suitable crossover point!’ he said into his BA speaker. He stood, quite lonely there, by the hole’s edge, and stared down, his restricted sight blurred with sweat. Walker was yelling, trying to pull himself up. It would be so easy to cast himself down… He took hold of Walker’s hand and heaved him up. They both stood embracing each other.

            After a moment he saw the chunk of metal in Walker’s chest, black and pulsing. And light was deserting the fireman’s eyes: his lungs were flooding.

***

Stubbornly clinging to life, the young lad stared down at his truncated torso: disbelief was in his wide eyes, for he mumbled something about his legs must be there, he could feel them. They had been sitting beside the hole in the street, the collapsed sewer below, a drop of some thirty feet. The boy screamed as he fell, then was silent. There had been a look of betrayal on the boy’s face. He had not wanted to die, he would have tried living even if in extreme pain and with only half a body. But Godlike, arrogantly, Bill Gorton had denied him; with unfathomable motives he had pushed the boy to his death. No cleansing tears of self-abasement came, only a terrible squirming emptiness as he knelt by the crumbling stones and stared down at the boy’s body. But he could not end his own torment; he must continue to suffer, to help others…

***

Gravity claimed Walker as soon as he was nudged over the edge of the hole. Walker’s words meant nothing to him: something about ‘Why?’ somewhat garbled, mixed with phlegm and blood. Peaceful rest – oblivion – would be faster this way, less traumatic. Traumatic for who, though? He shook himself, was straining to catch breath again. Slowly, he raised himself to a crouch and heaved the ladder across the gap, slung it over his shoulder. The breathing tanks clanged, metal on metal. He walked on, turned his back on memories of those whom he had helped.

            Dawn streaked the city rooftops to the east, mocking in its predictability. All things change, only the measure of time differs. He turned, noticing Stewart for the first time.

            Five storeys below, visible only through the IR camera, the quadrangle. Their flat rooftop was close, just over a ladder’s-length away from the tower block’s windows.

            ‘Drop that camera now, Stu, it’s no use till we go back down! Quick, lend me a hand!’ And Gorton scrambled down the stairs, the noise echoing even above the roar and crackle of flames. He’d remembered a loose partition-wall on the landing.

Together they demolished it with their axes and broke loose the wooden struts. Sweating heavily in their suits, they struggled with the wood back up onto the roof and dropped by the parapet overlooking the tower.

Gorton knelt, exhausted, and removed his helmet and face-mask.

The air was thick, hot and choking, but a welcome change from the claustrophobic breathing apparatus.

            He lifted his talkback set. ‘Hyslop, use your loud-hailers. Tell them to muster at the windows on the east side in five minutes and we’ll get them across!’

            ‘Aye, will do, Bill. Now take care!’

            Like a mother hen, he was. ‘All heart,’ he grinned at Stewart. The returned smile was wan; little hope in his eyes, either. Gorton knelt down to lash the struts together to form a small platform jutting out from the roof secured to the air-vents’ cowling. Sweat filled his eyes, he blinked it away. They then fastened the ladder to the struts and its furthest end barely clanged onto the far window ledge. There was a slight upward slope for the escapers to negotiate, but that couldn’t be helped.

            He withdrew his revolver, ready. Faces began appearing. Most of them were black, and not with smoke, mainly through genes. He called out, ‘Don’t rush all at once! I’ll shoot anyone who pushes! Children and women first. Now, steady! One at a time…’

***

Two Rastafarian women and a little boy were across, huddled near the roof exit. Smoke billowed ominously from the doorway. Now, a Malaysian girl in her teens was perched on the ladder. She looked beautiful, unblemished by the new harsh world.

            'You can do it, love,' he called reassuringly. She let go of the window-frame and began crawling.

            Without warning William Gorton's world distorted and collapsed around him. Blinding white light instantly banished all shadows and texture. His eyes watered and the after-image of the fulgent light remained with him even after his lids lowered. The deafening noise was nightmarish. He could feel his whole body vibrate disconcertingly.

            One of the lucky ones at last. One of the lucky ones...

***

Hyslop switched off the blank TV screen. ‘Some bastard planted bombs under that tower!’ He knew something of Gorton’s history and his death affected him. ‘Pull out!’ he felt like saying. ‘Damn them all!’ But no, perhaps others could still be saved. He thrust himself out of his seat and snatched a delta suit from the door-peg.

***

Her beautiful features were marred by sheer terror as the ladder swayed over the parapet. That side of the tower block was blackened and now gaped open, each floor division bared. Blood trickled from a gashed calf, her dress was torn, otherwise superficially she was all right.

            Gorton coughed on blood and dust, choking to get his breath in the clogged atmosphere. Reality and memories vied with him: a horrifying sense of deja vu ransacked his reason. As he stared through wet-rimmed eyes, the girl's features altered, disfigured and became a radiation-scorched corpse, a crushed dove, a fire-storm victim, a survivor whose visage was twisted with insanity.

He kept watching, unable to move. He screamed, agitatedly, 'Stop changing, damn you, stop it!'

He did not feel Stewart's steadying hand on his shoulder, he was not aware of the racking sobs he made.

She was all colours, all victims, from Belsen to Cambodia, from Hiroshima to the Solent, from Afghanistan to Ulster: innocence crucified.

He cried as he crawled along the swaying ladder, oblivious of the rungs digging into his stitched kneecap. He coughed on the smoke, Stewart's entreaties unheard: 'For God's sake, Bill, come back! It's too risky! Let's save these three at least!'

            He crawled and offered solace, a smile of reassurance.

            And her transmogrified face melted, became Oriental, unmarred save for beguiling dust smudges on brow and cheeks. Her dark brown eyes shone wetly. She un-tensed and reached out a hand to him, trusting.

            He would end her misery too, he decided, and prayed.

 * * *

Previously published in Cassandra Anthology, 1985

Copyright Nik Morton, 2015
 
 
 
If you enjoyed this story, you might like my collection of crime tales, Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat (2013), which features 22 cases from Leon Cazador, private eye, ‘in his own words’.  He is also featured in the story ‘Processionary Penitents’ in the Crooked Cat Collection of twenty tales, Crooked Cats’ Tales.
 
Spanish Eye, released by Crooked Cat Publishing is available as a paperback and as an e-book.
Or you could try my co-authored fantasy novel Wings of the Overlord (by Morton Faulkner) currently available in hardback (5 good glowing reviews):
 

Floreskand, where myth, mystery and magic reign. The sky above the city of Lornwater darkens as thousands of red tellars, the magnificent birds of the Overlord, wing their way towards dark Arisa. Inexplicably drawn to discover why, the innman Ulran sets out on a quest. Although he prefers to travel alone, he accedes to being accompanied by the ascetic Cobrora Fhord, who seems to harbour a secret or two. Before long, they realise that it's a race against time: they must get to Arisa within seventy days and unlock the secret of the scheduled magical rites. On their way, they stay at the ghostly inn on the shores of dreaded Lake and meet up with the mighty warrior Courdour Alomar. Alomar has his own reasons for going to Arisa and thus is forged an unlikely alliance. Gradually, the trio learn more about each other -- whether it's the strange link Ulran has with the red tellar Scalrin, the lost love of Alomar, or the superstitious heart of Cobrora. Plagued by assassins, forces of nature and magic, the ill-matched threesome must follow their fate across the plains of Floreskand, combat the Baronculer hordes, scale the snow-clad Sonalume Mountains and penetrate the dark heart of Arisa. Only here will they uncover the truth. Here too they will find pain and death in their struggle against the evil Yip-nef Dom.
 

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