SEVEN

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Janine's hands came up in front of her like claws. "I need black nail polish."

Finished with the quick hemming job, Virginia fluffed the skirt to check its length and nodded her approval. "We might have some in the costume bin. Why don't you go take a look?"

Janine raced off, the black cape flowing out behind her as she held onto the pointed hat that threatened to abandon the whole ensemble.

Every year it always comes down to the night before, Virginia thought, shaking her head at the indecisiveness of young girls. Janine had been having a personal wardrobe crisis while trying to decide on what to be for Halloween. Watching the little witch disappear down the hallway, she wondered if this time of year was conjuring up any memories for Tom. Was he missing all this? Did they even cross his mind?

He was living with his heiress in some large house over in Bel Air. It was hard to believe more than two months had passed since their separation. He had moved his things to the girlfriend's place and filed for divorce, all without a single word to his daughter. Janine was confused and quiet on the subject, never wanting to talk about it when asked. Virginia was careful not to push it or belittle Tom in front of her. Yes, she was young, but she was smart too. In time, she would make her own decisions about her father.

Janine ran back into the living room with a small bottle gripped tightly in her hand. "Is Uncle Jack still coming tomorrow?"

"Yes, and he said to tell you he's going to dress up."

Janine's eyes widened. "Really?" She knelt down in front of the coffee table.

Virginia nodded. Predicting what her daughter's next question would be, she added, "I don't know as what. He said it's a surprise."

Jack. Just hearing his name brought a smile to her face. He'd been wonderful. With only one income coming in, she'd been forced to give up all luxuries. Unfortunately, that included Mrs. Walker. And the weekly lawn service. Jack came over whenever he could to help out. Most weeknights he was busy at an off-duty job he'd been doing for years, the details of which he kept to himself, but he was at her door every Saturday morning, rain or shine, ready to work. At first she'd complained about taking up too much of his limited free time, but he had insisted, and she didn't argue the point. Truth be told, she liked having him around.

So did Janine. "I bet he's coming as Wolverine. He loves Wolverine," she said while beginning to paint the nails on her left hand. "Maybe I should be--"

"No!"

Virginia's phone rang. Assuming it was Jack, she was still laughing when she grabbed it up and started, "Hey, you need to--"

The siren cut through her words before Captain Beal's voice spoke roughly in her ear, "There's a fire on Century Boulevard near the park. It's one of the Chilvati warehouses. We're heading down now. Do you want to meet us?"

"I'll talk to my neighbor and see . . . Did you call Jack?"

"I can't get hold of him. I'll keep trying on my way there."

She phoned Kathy next door, who was happy to come over. Repeated attempts at calling Jack on her drive to Southeast were unsuccessful. Assuming he turned off his cell at work, she left a detailed message telling him where to go when he got off.

The scene was chaotic. Fire trucks were everywhere. Those fighting the blaze had to yell to be heard over pumping engines and the roar of rushing water. This was a five-alarmer, the fire busting its way out of every window and crevice, a snapping, howling monster searching for oxygen to feed on.

She and Jack knew most of the firemen out of stations 64 and 65, having gotten to know them while walking their beat. Recognizing the captain at the front line, she headed over to him, threading her way through vehicles, hoses, and harried firefighters, trying not to hold up anyone or anything.

"What's going on, Captain?" she shouted.

"It's a fucking big ass fire, that's what's going on," he snapped out of the side of his mouth with barely a glance in her direction. With the hellish scene going on in front of them, she wasn't at all surprised that Captain Shaw was annoyed by the interruption. It was the sudden double-take and change in his expression that caught her off guard.

She ignored the twinge in her stomach. "Was anyone inside?"

His jaw dropped so low, she was tempted to feel her head to see if she had just sprouted horns. What's his problem?

Somebody behind her caught the captain's attention and his whole body seemed to sag. Virginia looked over her shoulder, meeting the dark eyes of the bald, portly, black man coming at her. Next thing she knew, she was being guided over to a less active spot, away from all the noise. Turning her to face him, Cap took her hand in his and patted it.

Hang on. Who was this imposter, and what had he done with her boss? Captain Beal had an innate gruffness to him that would make guilty men sweat, mischievous boys stand still, and dogs scurry away. The gentle touch was not part of his management style.

He cleared his throat. "We think the fire was deliberate."

"Any idea why?"

He hesitated, pain encompassing his face as he reached forward and grabbed her other hand in his. "Virginia . . . we think Jack is in the building."

The world suddenly tilted, threatening to knock her off her feet as her heart raced. She was positive she had heard him wrong. Pulling her hands out from his and taking a step back, she shook her head, trying to deny any acceptance of the words. "Sorry, Cap, I must have heard you wrong. It sounded like you said, 'Jack is in the building.'" A self-conscious laugh bubbled its way up from her throat. She hated the way it sounded so uncertain.

This time it was her shoulders he went for, the weight of his hands feeling like a lead collar. She wanted to look away, to ignore what he was going to say, to deny what she had already heard, but she couldn't bring herself to do so.

He spoke slowly, as if she were drained of intellectual capacity. "His car is in the parking lot."

A number of her co-workers had surrounded her. The look of sympathy on their faces annoyed her. She wanted to yell at them for believing such nonsense.

Because he was wrong. He had to be wrong.

Her head turned to the building. The flames had fully engulfed it, reaching skyward like branches on a sun-seeking bush, swaying in the wind to give only glimpses of the glowing, supporting structure that lay underneath them.

It didn't make sense. None of it made sense. She opened her mouth to tell them that it didn't make--

A shriek cut her off, piercing through the mayhem, overtaking the noise of both the fire and the firefighting. . .

It took her a moment to realize what was happening.

She was the one screaming.

END OF CHAPTER SEVEN

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