BackStory 8: Thicker Than Water

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He stepped into the murky hallway, squinting as its peculiar brightness dripped into his eyes. Light pouring in from the open doors at the far end succeeded only in casting a glare on the dark floor which the passage of decades of students had hollowed. Although individuals had been reduced to mere silhouettes in the brilliance, a quick glance up the hallway revealed the man he sought not far ahead.

"Hey, Kyson, wait up!" The blond-haired man paused and half-turned, letting the continuing flow of people break around him, a broad-shouldered boulder in a stream of humanity. "I understand congratulations are in order for you and Jill," Tom said amiably when he caught up with his fellow engineer. Even a casual observer would agree the two men had been stamped from the same mold – both were muscular and solid, just above average height, innate confidence translating into an upright manner of moving that barely missed being martial. But they'd been rendered in contrasting media, resulting in Tom McConnikee having dark hair and cool blue eyes and Paul Kyson warm brown eyes and middling blond hair.

"Yeah, thanks," Paul replied. "We're excited and nervous. Who woulda thought I'd be a father again so soon?"

"I dunno, your wife, maybe?"

"Ha! Funny, McConnikee, very funny." The other man just grinned in reply as they continued walking down the crowded hallway together. Richly-toned paneled walls rose officiously from the marble floor, punctuated by utilitarian wood and glass doors. Simple black numbers were stenciled on each window and perhaps a quarter of the doors sported gold-flecked lettering as well, proclaiming departmental specialties: Anthropology, Sociology, Psychology.

When they exited the academic building into the bright southern California sunlight, Tom cocked his head to the right, eyebrows raised questioningly. Paul nodded and the two men walked to the end of the block, crossed the street, and entered O'Malley's Grill and Bar. It was only after they'd ordered and the waitress had brought them drinks that Paul began to work the general conversation about class in the direction he needed it to go.

"So, how is your sister-in-law doing?" he asked, sipping the dark beer briefly. "It's been, what, six months or so since the fire?" The fire had become infamous not only because it had touched a fireman's family but also because the design of the building had contributed to the casualty count.

"Morgan's doing really well, considering," Tommy replied casually. "Her burns are healing; the skin grafts seem to be doing okay. The paralysis is likely to be permanent, but we haven't given up on physical therapy." He'd answered these questions before and had learned to say it in an economical way, without pity or shame. Those who wanted to know more could ask but most were satisfied with the platitudes he offered.

"And the girl?"

"Patty Mack?" he replied with an actual smile. "She's doing great. Children are amazing." Despite his cheerful response, he said it with a little ache in his heart. Patty had become very dear to him and he had a hard time not getting in his brother's face about how Henry was neglecting her. She wasn't neglected – Clan McConnikee had seen to that – but her father was too absent to suit Tom. He'd even tried fooling her into thinking he was Henry once or twice – to provide at least the illusion of fatherly stability – but Patty saw right through him every time.

"I have to say, I'm surprised to hear they are doing so well. I assumed things weren't all that good, from Henry's … behavior." Paul smiled up at the waitress as she brought them chili and sandwiches; once she turned away, he let the smile fall from his face.

"Problems?" Tom asked, sampling his chili; he added a little hot sauce and tried it again. Better. He wasn't sure he wanted to hear what Paul was probably going to tell him, but he needed to know. There had already been hints from a few other people. As the engineer on Henry's regular shift, Paul would know what was going on … which was part of the reason Tommy'd sought him out.

"Uh, you know, a coupla more bouts of Irish flu a month than usual." He's coming to work hung over a lot. "He gets better by the end of shift but he's, uh, still pretty touchy most of the time." He's irritable and moody. "So the guys are giving him a wide berth these days." They don't trust him. "And then there's his work attitude."

"Oh? He slackin' off?" That wouldn't surprise Tom, if Henry were barely going through the motions. He was barely going through the motions with his family after all. Morgan and Patty deserved better, and it angered Tom more than he wanted to admit.

"On the contrary. He's the first one in to every fire, every rescue. Cap can't stop him when it comes to fire." He's overeager and Cap is annoyed.

"That's not a bad thing, is it?" Tommy knew there was more to it as he took a large bite out of his sandwich. The grilled cheese here was good, with three different kinds of cheeses and a pinch of sugar.

"He's also the last one out when we fall back." Paul took a few more bites of chili, weighing how he wanted to communicate what was really bothering him. "It's almost like … he doesn't want to leave the fire," he finally said. Tom looked up and met his friend's eyes briefly, then grunted dismissively and took a drink from his glass. For a few moments, they ate in silence with only the clink of utensils marking time for them.

"Hey, did you see Crazylegs Hirsch in the Rams game the other day?" McConnikee asked suddenly.

"Oh, yeah, we caught some of it on the television at the station. And the punt return by that Woodley kid was unreal. Seventy-some yards, wasn't it?" The change of subject was abrupt enough to let Kyson know he'd gotten his point across. He wondered what McConnikee planned to do next; he definitely had something in mind. Paul could see it in those cool blue eyes.

"Seventy-eight," Tommy confirmed. "He just blew past the Lions like they were standing still. And then Van Brocklin hooked up with Boyd for another TD – ."

"Missed that, I guess. We got called out right at the start of the fourth quarter," Kyson said, then sighed. "The same thing'll probably happen this Sunday, too."

"Aren't you going to the game? It's dem Bears of yours." Paul's love of the Chicago Bears was well-known in the department and he'd managed to make it to The Game the past few years, trading shifts or cashing in favors he'd stored up all year to do it.

"Planned to but I can't. Sorenson was going to take my shift but now I'm working for Sorenson instead of him working for me." The station's senior engineer had broken his leg a few days ago and he'd be out a good six weeks. The stand-by engineer wasn't able to fill in until Tuesday's shift which left Kyson holding the bag.

"What if I work for you?" McConnikee offered nonchalantly, finishing off the last few bites of his chili and taking another swig of his iced tea, before meeting Paul's brown eyes. I have to see how bad it is, Paul.

"Sure you want to?" It's not pretty, Tom.

"Yeah," Tom said. No choice, man; he's my brother. "I can always use an extra shift or two. And, I'll have you in my pocket when Notre Dame's in town." Wish me luck.

"Go Irish!" Paul said, approving the trade and the plan. You'll need it, pally, you'll need it.

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The smoke was thick but Henry could sense the fire wasn't much further. The plink of glass cracking sent a shiver down his spine, despite the sweat pouring off him; it always had, in every fire he'd ever been in. Metal cans began popping from the heat, the random plonks becoming more frequent as they neared the kitchen. There was a dull orange glow ahead, like banked embers in a room-sized fireplace. The crackle and roar of a working fire grew louder as he moved forward, the air growing heavy with humidity as the water already being poured onto the flames turned to steam and fog. Around the last corner and he could see the flames themselves devouring cabinet and crockery alike, black smoke curling in the air, pushed around by thermals he could almost see in the thick air.

For just a second, a half-second, a tenth-second, Henry watched the flames dance, a sinuous seduction of the air and the wood, and considered how an as-yet unconsummated union with fragile flesh might be the solution. Another series of plinks from the panes of glass in the door of one of the cabinets caused him to flinch, breaking into his unholy fascination with the flames. Angry at himself, Henry growled back at the flames and turned his attention to killing the evil presence which had so maimed his heart, once more a firefighter intent on extinguishing the flames, not – whatever it was he had been for a moment.

The veteran fireman backing him up affected not to notice the growl but wondered how he could feel a chill in a room filled with hot gases, roiling smoke, and hissing fire. Next time he picks up an extra shift here, the man thought, McConnikee is gonna have to find someone else to back him. I ain't gonna do it, that's for sure.

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"Uncle Tommy! Uncle Tommy!" The sweet piping voice greeted him when he got home from his lunch with Paul. "Can we play fire trucks again?"

"Sure, Patty Mack, any time you want." Tommy put down his books and picked up his niece, swinging her around as she laughed in delight.

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The next day, the captain on Paul and Henry's regular shift approved the various personnel requests for Sunday, noting he'd have two of his regular linemen, the two McConnikees, and a kid so new he squeaked, on the engine. Technically, Dickie Hammer wasn't a boot since he was past his probationary period, but he was still young and inexperienced. He'd need watching over. Captain Farnsworth wasn't oblivious to Henry's state of mind but chose to ignore it and refused, absolutely refused, to mollycoddle him. Expecting McConnikee would step up to the plate with Hammer, Cap decided to give Henry the task of shepherding the new guy this shift. He really was very good at watching out for and bringing along the boots. If he stayed with the department, he'd be a good academy instructor some day.

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The main part of the three-story building was about fifty feet wide by five hundred feet long. With heavy timber framing, brick sheathing, and abundant paned windows, the factory was typical mid-century construction. A pair of central stairwells provided primary access for workers to the upper floors while a single staircase on the west end of the building led to executive offices on the second floor and administrative workspace on the third.

A matching staircase on the east end of the building had been removed when the factory was retooled in '42 as part of the war effort. The last eighty or so feet of the second and third floors on the east end had also been demolished, creating a full-height open bay to which a metal frame structure had been added. The 8,500-square-foot addition jutted out from the northeast corner of the building; two long wings speared out from the central part of the addition where a state-of-the-art refrigeration unit was housed. Storage space above the main floor of the addition could be reached by a series of metal stairs; a movable pulley system was used to move larger items into and out of the open space storage.

The facility had been shut down, awaiting a post-war renovation, when fire had broken out in the west end of the building, in a file room on the second floor, late on that Sunday afternoon. The broad windows allowed passersby – and the fire department – to track the uneven progress of the fire on each floor. It became quickly apparent they needed to stop the progress of the fire before it reached the central stairwells or they would be forced to fall back to a primarily exterior attack. There were no usable stairs at the east end of the building.

When Henry sized up the scene, he realized the second floor would be plagued by twin dangers: the fire below burning up through the floor until it collapsed and plunged the unwary into the waiting flames, and the fire above burning down through the ceiling until it collapsed and rained chunks of burning materials on the unsuspecting. It would do just fine, he thought with a grim smile.

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Hammer hustled out of the smoke-filled entrance, pulled off his mask, and smiled. He blinked when he saw the now-familiar name across the back of a fireman standing by the engine. He'd spent the day with those shoulders and that name in front of him. Puzzled, he picked his way through the hoses and touched the man on the arm.

"Hey, how did you get out here so fast?" Hammer asked Tom McConnikee.

"What?" Tommy stared at Dickie blankly, mind on regulating the flow of water and tracking the progress of the fire. It wasn't looking too good on the first floor.

"I followed the hose out, like you said. You were right, I didn't get lost and I made it out. But I figured I'd get out here before you." Hammer wiped his face, managing only to smear the soot across his forehead more uniformly. "Did you take another route back out or what?"

"What are you talking about?" Tommy asked again. Then, realizing Hammer's mistake, Tommy began to scan the scene intently, looking for his doppelganger brother. "Aw, hell." He grabbed the confused kid's arm and pulled him toward Captain Farnsworth, who was observing the fire about fifteen feet from the engine. "Cap? I think something's wrong. Dickie said Henry told him to follow the hose out. But I don't see my brother outside anywhere."

"Henry Malone's still inside?" Farnsworth asked, a bad feeling settling in his stomach.

This was the third fire they'd handled this shift and Henry had gotten more and more agitated after each one. Sure, he'd been surprised to see his brother filling in for Kyson at the start of the shift, instead of one of the guys from 18s. And he'd not been too happy to be paired with the Hammer kid, although he'd come around a little bit by early afternoon, just like Farnsworth had expected. He'd also seemed frustrated after the first two fires had been small and quickly extinguished.

Now, they were at the scene of a large, well-involved structure fire. Farnsworth got a chill when he remembered the calm, satisfied look that had settled on Henry's face a few minutes after they'd pulled up to the fire. He'd clapped his brother on the back with a broad smile, motioned for Dickie to follow, and began hauling hose toward the main entrance. Just before he'd entered, Henry had turned back – taking in the firemen scrambling on, off, over, and around the assembled fire apparatus. Then he nodded once to Farnsworth and went in.

"Go get that son of a – ," Cap started to growl at Tom when the signal went out for everyone to fall back. "Damn!" he said and hurried toward the battalion chief. "Stay here, McConnikee!" he yelled over his shoulder.

Tommy turned to Hammer, who was starting to get the – very ugly – picture. "Dickie, what floor were you workin' on?" he asked urgently, pulling him back toward the engine.

"Second, just about there," he said, pointing to a window about one-third of the way down the building's length. The fire had advanced perhaps another thirty feet, he thought, than when he'd followed Henry's order to leave. "What are you doing?" he asked as Tom shrugged into his air tank.

"Goin' to get my fool of a brother." The younger man started to pull his gear on again, only to be stopped by McConnikee's firm hand. "No. This is a-a family matter. You're going to stay here. If Henry comes out before I do, tell him I had clan business inside." Tom smiled suddenly. "If Cap asks where I am, tell him I decked you and ran inside like a crazy man."

"No! You can't do this alone," Dickie argued, grabbing hold of the other man's turnouts. "I left him when I shouldn't have – I know that now – so I'm going with – ." Tom's fist interrupted Hammer, stunning him. McConnikee plunked him down by the engine and then went into the building, swimming against the tide of exiting firemen.

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It was the oddest thing.

Water was relatively quiet when compared to all the noises a fire could generate, but he was able to pick it out well enough. The sound of water flowing onto the fire made Henry easier for Tom to find and revealed the oddity: Henry was still fighting the fire on the second floor.

Tom grabbed the back of Henry's neck and gave him a little shake, then put one hand on his brother's shoulder and the other on the charged line. Slowly, he forced Henry to retreat from the fire, step by step, until they were beside the stairwell again.

Reluctantly, Henry shut down the nozzle and turned to his brother, who had loosened up his mask enough to be able to speak. Henry followed suit. There was still time for the McConnikees to exit safely, but the distance between the flames and the stairwell was diminishing.

"Hello, Henry."

"Hi, big brother. What brings you in here?" Henry's voice was as casual as though Tom had walked into a diner instead of a burning building to speak to him, but he was watching the other man carefully. This was a complication he hadn't expected.

"Apparently there's some clan business to be taken care of in here."

"Oh?"

"Looks like someone got himself all twisted up inside."

"Really?"

"Seems someone needs some extra help finding his way back."

"That so?"

"Henry…." Tom clenched his fists but resisted the urge to slug-and-lug. Decking his brother and carrying him out of this fire would fix the immediate problem but what was inside Henry would still be smoldering dangerously. Next time, Tom might not be available to douse the flames.

"What?" Cool blue eyes stared into cool blue eyes, mirrors without the regression to infinity.

"We gotta go, Henry." He reached out and grabbed his brother's upper arms, giving him another little shake, and tried to turn him toward the stairs. "There are people depending on us."

"You do, maybe. Not me," Henry shot back, jerking away. He noticed the flames had inched closer, but kept his eyes on Tommy, expecting him to try something. Tommy would fight dirty if he had to.

"Who's gonna take care of your family if you … stay here?"

Henry snorted. "You will, Tom. You're already doin' it now, better than I ever could." He pushed his mask over his face and took a deep breath, then let it fall again.

"Not gonna happen," Tommy said, shaking his head. The fire was getting closer, the place where they stood hotter, with every moment. He needed to force his brother's hand and he had only one idea. It all depended on whether Henry still cared.

"Right!" Henry found his brother's posturing almost amusing. "Like you'd ever turn Patty Mack or Morgan away from your door."

"I wouldn't," he admitted, pulling off his helmet. "But since I'm not going anywhere without you, that won't come into play, will it, little brother?" Tom removed his air mask completely and automatically replaced his helmet. "Either you'll be there for them, or neither of us will." He took about three deep breaths from the mask, heart pounding. Dying wasn't on my agenda today, Tom thought, but I'm willing to pencil it in for you, brother. He shrugged his air tank off, holding it and the mask in his right hand, hefting it just a bit, trying to get used to the weight. The mask slipped out of his fingers and he bent to secure it to the tank differently, sneaking one last sip of good air.

As he watched his brother's actions, Henry became less amused and more alarmed. "What are you doing? You need to just go, Tom. Just – go."

Tom stood, stepped closer, grabbed his brother's turnout coat at the throat with one big hand. "We came into this world together, McConnikee, and, if you insist on staying here, we'll go out of this world together," Tommy said harshly in a clear, trumpet-like voice. And with that, he stepped back and heaved his air supply into the encroaching flames.

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When his 45-day suspension was over, Thomas McConnikee was assigned to a different station under a captain known for his firm hand. He was lucky to retain his job and his rank after assaulting a fellow firefighter, disobeying a direct order, leaving his post at an active scene, and threatening a superior with bodily harm, even though said harm was anatomically impossible. At least three things worked in his favor: his exemplary record in the department; the highly unusual circumstances which had prompted the incident as attested to by Kyson, Farnsworth, Hammer, and others; and Henry.

When the incident was reviewed by the department, Henry McConnikee was found to have exhibited poor judgment when he failed to exit the fire in a timely manner and was suspended for ten days. He was assigned a desk job at headquarters, pending an evaluation of his fitness to return to firefighting.

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About five days before Tom's suspension was up, the department planned a live burn exercise on Wardlow, west of Alameda. Henry arrived on the scene early, turnout gear in hand. Slated for demolition as part of yet another public works project, the duplex had been stripped of its contents and checked for structural hazards. As a result, the only thing most of the participating firemen would be fighting was the fire itself.

Henry knew he'd be fighting himself as well. This was a final exam, of sorts, for him. Passing meant he could continue to be a fireman; failing meant … something else. Without the distraction of firefighting and the periodic lure of flames for the past few weeks, he'd had time to consider what that 'something else' might entail but he had no answers yet.

He had even found himself lingering after Mass the other day, wondering if he might find some answers in the church.

Before long, two fire engines and one departmental car pulled up, spilling firemen from various shifts and stations into the yard. A few more private vehicles arrived soon after and several more firemen reported for the training. Henry was surprised to see Dickie Hammer and Paul Kyson among them; he was even more surprised when Hammer came over to him immediately with a firm handshake. "Good to see you, Henry," he said soberly. Hammer looked older in some indefinable way and it bothered Henry.

A blast of an engine's air horn brought all of the men together, several of them opting to kneel as the chief briefed them on the day's event and ground rules: 'Teams will rotate into and out of the fire as directed, no exceptions.' 'Partners will stay together at all times, no exceptions.' 'All orders will be obeyed promptly, no exceptions.' When he was finished, one of the training captains stepped forward and read off pairs of names, directing them to the rear entrance of one side of the duplex. Another captain read off another set of names, pairing up the participants and sending them to the front of the other side.

Hammer accepted being partnered with Henry wordlessly, although Henry overheard a few snide remarks from a couple of other firemen. It took him a minute or two for the comments to sink in. When they did, he realized the premature aging Dickie had displayed was probably due to all the crap Hammer had been getting for 'leaving' Henry in that fire. Because he'd pulled desk duty, McConnikee'd been insulated from the sharp barbs that probably should have been tossed his direction. Another of my casualties, he thought.

A final check of the building and the fire was kindled. Eight long minutes passed. More than one fireman fidgeted as the smoke and the flames became visible, hard-pressed to stand idle while a fire extended its reach. Others observed the fire with an almost clinical detachment, cataloguing the exterior signs and correlating them with interior reality.

When the chief signaled the fire was sufficiently involved for the evolution to begin, a general sigh went through the men, converting the mood from pensive waiting to active anticipation. Henry took a few deep breaths and pushed everything out of his mind but this fire. He saw a similar concentration on Hammer's face and nodded approvingly. The young man had a lot of potential. It looked like they would be the third team in through the front.

When the second team entered, the pair stepped up to the captain who brusquely informed them to check their gear again. Henry ran experienced hands over himself and his gear, and gave a 'thumbs up' quickly. Hammer seemed to be taking a long time to do the same, and then started fumbling left-handedly with his air tank, jaw tight, an embarrassed rouge staining his cheeks. "Fall back to the end of the line," the captain said when Dickie was unable to verify his ready status in the requisite time, and motioned the next team up for an equipment check. Henry nodded and pulled the youngster along with him, trying to see what the problem was as he did. Focused on what he was doing, Henry didn't notice a familiar blue pick-up truck pulling up.

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Across the street, Tom turned off the motor and let the old truck roll to a stop. Paul had told him about the live burn and he knew he had to be there. So much depended on how Henry handled this.

"Uncle Tommy?"

"Yes, Patty Mack?" He turned his head to look at the adorable four-year-old sitting next to him, her long dark hair pulled back with a red ribbon, her green eyes big and bright with curiosity.

"Are we going to play fire trucks for real today?"

"No, sweetie, but we can watch them work from here for awhile. Would you like that?" For an answer, she climbed up into his lap and stuck her head out of the window, watching intently. He shifted her knees slightly so they wouldn't dig into his thigh as painfully and kept an arm lightly around her. Suddenly, she squealed in delight and nearly fell through the window in her excitement. Tom grabbed the back of her red bib overalls to keep her in the truck.

"Daddy! Uncle Tommy, Daddy's over there! I see him! Daddy!" Patty waved happily in Henry's direction.

"Shhh, Patty, shhh! Daddy's working right now and we can't bother him. Remember what I told you? When your daddy goes into a fire, he has to think just about the fire so he'll be safe. It's like when you want to use the scissors to cut something out – ."

"Like the hearts you drew for me?"

"Exactly. Remember how you have to be careful and watch what you are doing, so you can stay on the line and not cut yourself? It's the same way with your daddy and fires."

"You mean, he has to pay a, at, a-ten-sun?"

Tom smiled. "Yes, Patty Mack, he has to pay attention. So we have to be quiet, okay?"

"Okay, Uncle Tommy," she whispered and turned again to watch her father and the fire trucks and the rapidly burning house. Daddy'll make the fire go away soon, she thought happily.

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"Now, remember: Check your equipment at the start of every shift, and when you stow it after a run. It only takes a few minutes but it could make a big difference." Henry continued to provide a running commentary as he deftly pulled the twisted strap free, slid it through his gloved left hand to work out the kinks and started to rethread it through the metal buckle. "The strap here was twisted, see, which is why you couldn't cinch it up properly. There you go," he concluded, pulling the smooth strap tight and clapping his partner on the back. "Got it?" Henry pulled his right glove back on.

"Got it," Dickie said, settling the air tank into position. Henry's straightforward pedagogical tone soothed his embarrassment as well.

"McConnikee, Hammer, you're up next," the training officer said. "Are you both ready this time?"

"Yes, sir," they replied in unison.

"You're the last pair, so you're responsible for extinguishing this side. Don't come out until it's out, capisce?"

"Yes, sir," they said together again.

"Alright, get to it."

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"Good luck, Henry," Tom said quietly as he watched his brother enter the fire.

"Shhh, Uncle Tommy, Daddy's working." Patty's fierce, whispered admonition silenced him, a bit of a smile playing across his lips. Children are amazing. He tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear before rubbing small circles over her back comfortingly, deciding not to examine the question of who was comforting and who was being comforted too closely.

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Hammer entered first, crouching down as he followed the hose into the smoky interior. When he reached the first fireman, he tapped him on the shoulder and exchanged places with him. Henry passed by both to the nozzle man and smoothly took over from him. The hand on his shoulder was a signal Dickie was ready to move forward. Without hesitation, McConnikee began to drown the fire around him.

They worked steadily, alert to fire's fickle ways. No one watching could accuse McConnikee of lingering but neither did he rush like he might have another time. He thoroughly explored the places where fire could hide; his eyes searched for that particular quiver in heated air which could presage a fiery outbreak. In one room, apparently not yet breached by the other teams, McConnikee greeted the crackling flames aggressively – thrusting forward through the door, quickly forcing a solid stream of water over every surface, stepping back abruptly. Recognizing the technique Henry'd only been able to describe for him before, Hammer stepped up and pulled the door shut, the suffocating steam denying the fire further liberties with wood and wallpaper. Where flames had already exposed the bones of the house, Henry methodically washed away any hope of rekindling the fire inside.

When the water had wiped away each trace of fire they could see, McConnikee shut off the nozzle, laid down the hose, and turned to Hammer, breaking the seal on his air mask. "Thank you," Henry said, extending his hand.

"Any time," Dick said in reply, grasping Henry's hand firmly before releasing it. "You're leaving the department then?" he asked. "Even after today?"

Henry looked down at his still-gloved hands. "This was a good day. I could be in the here and now, I could do my job, I could even enjoy it. I wanted to go into the fire but I didn't want to stay in the fire forever." He paused. "Tomorrow may be a bad day, when none of that would be true. Sooner or later, I'd get someone killed." Henry's jaw clenched and he swallowed hard before looking Dick in the eye. "Probably someone like you. So, yeah, this was my last fire."

"Well, I'm glad you let me tag along," the younger man said after a moment. "Ready to go?" he asked, picking up a loop of hose.

"Yeah." McConnikee scooped up the nozzle and began dragging the line toward the front door, Hammer muscling the hose behind him. As they approached the door, Henry looked up and saw Tommy and Patty standing with Paul by one of the engines. He had smiled and started to wave when he felt a chill scamper down his back.

Plink. Plink, plink. Plin – .

Glancing up toward the sound, Henry saw the top of the wall – the wall shared with the other half of the duplex – begin to darken and smoke. There was fire in the walls. "Hammer!" he yelled and aimed the nozzle toward the ceiling. As flames broke out from the wall, water spewed from the hose to quash it. Dick was right there with him.

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Patty saw her father coming out of the fire-damaged house and saw him smile at her. She started toward him eagerly, only to feel her uncle's hand grab the back of her overalls. "No, Patty, not yet," he said firmly, eyes narrowing when he saw Henry step back abruptly. "Just wait, hon," he added. Henry didn't reappear for several minutes and Tommy found he was telling himself the same thing he'd told Patty: Not yet, Tommy, not yet. Just wait.

Then the two men stepped out of the house and reported to the training captain, grinning widely. When he'd stepped clear of the immediate area, Henry caught Tommy's eye and nodded once. Relieved, Tommy relaxed his hold on Patty and wasn't the least bit surprised when she started running. Her joyful shouts of "Daddy! Daddy!" cleared a path through the bemused firemen. Henry caught her up in his arms and spun her around, her delighted laughter flowing over the gathering, bringing smiles to sooty faces.

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"Just had to be dramatic, didn't ya?"

"Who, me?"

"McConnikee …," the other man said warningly, then chuckled.

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'Modern' SCBAs were introduced in the 1950s but, generally speaking, were not widely used until the 1980s. So, my extensive utilization of SCBAs is probably a bit anachronistic for the mid-1950s. I rather suspect the show's utilization of SCBAs was also atypical at times. Of course, the modern firefighter seems to consider an airpack as much a part of his uniform as boots. And, I'll add another mea culpa to my list: conversing in the middle of a structure fire smacks more of Hollywood fantasy than gritty reality. I had a different location planned for the conversation (you think the big refrigerator was in there just for kicks?) but, well, it struck me as a) too involved and b) too dramatic. And we all know I would never go for convoluted or dramatic… right?

I anticipate one more sketch will round out this collection. And, yes, Patty and Mike are gonna be sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g …

I do this for fun not profit; the characters (with the exception of Henry McConnikee, Patty McConnikee and Paul Kyson) are not mine but the mistakes (without exception) are.