Smoke on the Water Episode 19

Smoke on the water header

Chapter 19: Hoyt

I thrust my hands beneath the running water and scrubbed them with mechanic’s soap for the third time. “How is it there’s not yet a better way to get caulk off of hands?”

“It’s one of life’s greatest mysteries,” Dad agreed. “Sometimes you just have to let it wear off.”

Given my plans for the night involved running these hands all over Caroline, I was highly motivated to get the rest of the crud off. Maybe scrubbing was the wrong tactic. Perhaps something oily would help?

“I’ll figure it out. You head on home. I’m sure Mom is waiting to interrogate you about the house. I gotta clean up and get on into town to meet Caroline.”

“Will do.”

“I appreciate all your help today, Dad. Truly.” It hadn’t been a visibly productive day, but we’d gotten tons done. After changing out the water heater, we’d gone through the house and caulked every damned thing that could conceivably need caulking. Trim. Doors. Windows. All necessary before doing the more fun stuff like painting. I was glad I had one more day off before being back on shift. My hands were already cramping like a son of a bitch. They’d need a chance to rest.

He clapped a hand on my shoulder. “Anytime. You bring your girl back around the house. Your mom and I like her.”

“I’ll do that.”

After another two rounds of scrubbing, I’d gotten the worst of the caulk off. I could still feel the pull of it on my skin, but at least my hands were clean enough I could actually check whatever text had come in earlier.

Pulling the phone from my pocket, I found a message from Caroline.

“Closing early,” I muttered. Shit, this message was from twenty minutes ago.

I elected to forego the shower and headed straight into town. Maybe I could talk her into a joint one when we got back home. There were a few fantasies that had been keeping me up nights that I’d love to enact.

As she’d instructed, I circled around back and parked. Her car and one other were still in the lot. Good. Then I hadn’t missed her. Shutting off the engine, I slipped out of the truck. The moment I did, I smelled the smoke.

“Caroline!” I bolted for the building, one hand already reaching for my phone to dial the firehouse, when I spotted the feet sticking out beside the dumpster.

Heart in my throat, I poured on more speed, skidding to a stop and falling to my knees. Not Caroline. Jasper. He lay facedown on the pavement, blood matting the hair on the back of his head. I called it in, even as I checked for a pulse. The thrum beneath my fingers reassured me he was just unconscious. I didn’t even register who answered the phone before I was barking into it. “This is Lieutenant McNamara. There’s a fire at the tavern. At least one victim of blunt force trauma out back.”

I heard the wail of the alarm bell, both over the phone and in the distance. They were only a couple of blocks away. They’d be coming fast. Thank God.

I was dimly aware of the man on the other end of the phone warning me to stay put as I hung up. I knew protocol. Knew the dangers. And I didn’t give a damn because Caroline could be in there. As I circled the building, trying to assess the state of the blaze, I cursed the arsonist who’d taken out my truck. All my personal protective equipment had burned up with it. I had only myself.


There was no answer.

The awning windows hadn’t yet been shut for the night. Smoke was already beginning to billow out the side. I boosted myself through one of them, dropping instantly to the floor. The fire hadn’t yet reached the dining room, but the smoke was getting thicker. Yanking the bandana I’d been using as a sweat rag all day from my pocket, I tied it over my face and began moving toward the kitchen. I could see flames creeping up the walls through the pass-through. Once they got to this side and reached the alcohol, everything was gonna go up like tinder. Why the hell hadn’t the fire suppression system kicked on? The building was equipped with sprinklers.

I kept shouting for Caroline, scanning the floors, terrified of what I might find.

The swinging door leading into the kitchen was hot to the touch. If I opened it, I’d be giving the fire more oxygen. The smart move was to wait for backup and get the hell out of here.

Then I heard the faint sound of pounding over the roar of the flames. That wasn’t outside.


Was that shouting? It had to be. The thumping got louder.

In the back of my brain, I knew the engine should be here by now. They’d be unfurling hoses, getting lines going. So I took the risk and kicked open the door.

Flames reached for me with greedy fingers as I hurled myself through the opening. The smoke was thicker here. My skin prickled from the heat as every drop of moisture evaporated. Coughs racked my body as I struggled to figure out where the noise was coming from. The office? The cooler? Why couldn’t I hear the pounding anymore?

That was when I spotted a metal chair wedged beneath the knob of another door. No way was that an accident. The hallway beyond it was fully engulfed, a gaping maw leading straight to hell. But I didn’t hesitate. I leapt toward the sink and the bar towel draped over it. Damp, thank God. Then I went straight for the belly of the beast. Kicking the chair away, I reached for the knob with the towel. Even through the extra fabric, I could feel the sear of heat, but I managed to get it open.

Caroline was crumpled to the floor amid a mess of cleaning supplies. She’d wedged a wet mop beneath the edge of the door to block the smoke. Smart girl. But she wasn’t moving. Terrified, I scooped her up just as something exploded.


The fire had reached the bar area and all that alcohol. Turning quickly, I realized the way I’d come in was blocked. Both our escape routes were covered up with flames.

Suddenly, the back door splintered open, and familiar helmeted shapes were coming through the door. The one in the lead waved for me to come on, even as water was being directed against the flames. Eyes stinging, chest burning, I hurtled out of the building and away from danger.

Someone tried to take Caroline from me, but I clutched her close. At least, until another coughing fit took me down to my knees. Somebody put an oxygen mask over my face. I started to shove it away, to push it toward Caroline, but I realized they’d done the same for her. And her eyes… those beautiful, bloodshot eyes were open. Thank God.

I reached out a hand and snagged hers, relieved to feel her squeeze my fingers.

Looking back at the building, I saw multiple lines being run. They’d be prioritizing keeping the fire from spreading to buildings beyond. I didn’t know if any of this one would be salvageable by the end. But Caroline was okay. That was the only thing that mattered right at this moment.

Abruptly, she sat up, tugging off the mask. “Jasper! Where’s Jasper?”

“He’s out.” I spotted him being treated a couple dozen feet away. “I found him knocked out by the dumpster, but he’s alive.”

Caroline scooted closer and slumped into me. “Thank God. You came.”

“Of course I did. I always will.” I wrapped an arm around her. “What happened?”

She started to speak and fell into another round of coughing, then had to wait for a little more oxygen. “We closed early. It was just Jasper and me left. He’d gone to take out the trash, and I was about to go mop the dining room. Somebody shoved me into the closet and blocked the door somehow.”

“They’d wedged a chair under the handle.” And now that I was out of the danger zone, the full implication of that began to sink in.

This fire hadn’t only been arson, it had been attempted murder. And Caroline had been the target.