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“Hello? Hello? Carly?”
Carly Harrington-Reese shifted her cell phone back to her ear. “I’m here, Aunt Fredda. I thought I heard a dog barking next door. But I don’t hear anything now.”
“Humph.” That was Aunt Fredda’s famous sound that, when emitted from the judicial bench where she was a juvenile court judge, stood for unimpressed, doubtful, or dissatisfied. “Didn’t I just say it’s not a good idea for a young woman to be working alone late at night?”
“I’m about done anyway.” Carly put her aunt on speaker before reaching for the sterling silver bell necklace on her front display table. It was the reason she’d popped back into her store tonight. She hadn’t meant to leave the signature piece of her first jewelry collection behind when she locked up. “Besides, the space next door is empty.”
“Now I don’t like the sound of that one bit. Empty spaces are just begging for trouble to walk in.”
“It won’t be vacant long. The landlord has had interest in turning it into a cupcake shop. I’m thinking people who like to buy individual sweets might also want one-of-a-kind items from my boutique.”
“I know that’s right. Flawless is going to be a hit. How can it not, with my little supermodel niece large and in charge? I saw the grand opening banner when I drove by this morning.”
“You came by?” Carly frowned and laid the necklace on the counter. Whimpering sounds again. Was it a dog? Or her imagination working overtime? “Why didn’t you come in?”
“Grand-nephew Frye. He just got his driver’s permit and talked me into letting him drive around. I told him if he scratches my Mercedes it’s coming out of his future college tuition money. Carly? You’re not listening to me, are you? Carly?”
“Now that was a dog. I’m sure of it. Right on the other side of this wall.” Carly had moved in between the racks of handmade scarves loomed in Ethiopia and the raffia-weave document cases made in Madagascar to press her ear to the eco-friendly wallpaper of the wall she shared with the shop next door.
There were faint noises coming from the other side, all right. Sounds like scratching.
“What are you doing? Is that a door I hear opening? Carly?” Aunt Fredda’s husky voice had climbed half an octave. “You’re not going over there? Don’t be crazy.”
“Sorry, Aunt Fredda. I’ll call you back in five.” Carly pocketed her phone and hurried out her front door.
Four of the five one-floor redbrick storefronts that made up the historically restored building strip at the corner of Lipscomb and Magnolia were dark. Only the large plate glass windows of her corner shop door spilled light onto the sidewalk.
Turning her head, she glanced right and left. It was past eleven o’clock on a Thursday night in March. A couple of cars rolled leisurely down Magnolia Avenue. All the slots in the public bike rental rack on the corner were full. The trendy bars in the next block in either direction were closed. The weekend would be different. But for now only one couple walked arm-in-arm on the other side of the street. No dog in sight anywhere.
Then she was sure she heard sounds again, coming from the store on her left. It was like that faint whimper her dog Cooper used to make when he got into trouble. An enthusiastic but uncoordinated mix of curiosity and poor choices, Cooper had height issues. He would climb up without hesitation onto beds, picnic tables, even the flatbed of a truck. But anything higher than the sofa had him crying for assistance to get down.
She couldn’t stand the idea of anything in trouble, especially an animal. “I should just mind my own business.” But she wasn’t going to.
She never minded her own business when someone or thing was in trouble. Her mother called it her “Good Samaritan Habit” formed at the age of three. That was after she found Carly in their back yard with a garden snake that had half-swallowed a frog. Holding on to both creatures, Carly was trying to pull them apart. Sadly, the frog was a goner. Carly’s instinct to help the vulnerable was still very much alive.
Moving in front of one of the dark windows of the shop next door, she pressed her forehead to the cool plate glass and framed her face with her hands to block the streetlight. But there was nothing to see. The windows were covered in paper from the inside.
She moved to try the door handle. It was locked.
She knocked. “Hello! Anybody in there?”
Silence. Not even a whimper this time.
The phone rang in her pocket.
“Tell me you aren’t out on the street alone.”
“I’m okay, Aunt Fredda.”
“Did you find the dog?”
“That’s because there isn’t one. No one leaves a dog in a building. It’s much more likely you heard mice next door. Or, maybe a squirrel looking for a place to build a nest. You’re just nervous about your opening. You want me to come down there? Because I can be there in ten minutes.”
“No, no.” Carly blew out a give-me-patience breath. “You’re probably right. I’m just nervous and jumping at every sound. Why don’t you wait and come by tomorrow for the soft opening? You’ll get the first pick of everything.”
“Now that’s an idea I like.” Her aunt sounded very pleased. “I got to go. I’m missing The Late Show. Call me when you are on your way home.”
Carly pocketed her phone and stood a moment longer, straining for sounds from the store behind her. Maybe it was just her nerves turning ordinary noises into ominous sounds. Of course, she could call and report that she heard weird noises coming from a vacant store. But what if Aunt Fredda was right and it was mice, or squirrels? Or rats? No, better not bother the police about rodents.
She turned back to her shop and paused, a smile spreading across her face as she gazed at the sign above the door. FLAWLESS.
Her shop represented so much. A fresh start. A new life. Flawless wasn’t just about beauty. Or bling. It was about a woman empowering other women while owning her own style.
The idea for a store had crossed her mind when she was still working as a model. Everyone lauded the designers of the beautiful, sometimes bizarre, clothing she strutted on the catwalk. But only a handful of insiders ever met the talented women who embroidered, made lace, or spent hundreds of hours sewing by hand the sequins, pearls, and crystals that made so many of the couture pieces works of art. Most worked in crowded overseas factories, or locally, from home. Paid minimum wages for their exquisite creations, they never saw a cent of the exorbitant prices their contributions ultimately demanded at the retail level. She wanted to change that. So, she’d returned home, sunk a good bit of her savings into creating a boutique where people could come and touch and examine and buy one-of-a-kind pieces.
Flawless would highlight those yet-to-be-discovered women who deserved to reach an audience. Art wasn’t just for the rich or those who didn’t have to scramble for a living. There were lots of ways of not being okay in this world. Art was a way to be okay.
Carly took a deep breath as she caught her reflection in the store windows. Her two-tone hairdo was new enough that she paused to study it. A riot of tight blonde-tipped ringlets cascaded over her brow from the crown. The naturally darker sides of her hair had been swept back and pinned to mimic the look of being cropped very close. It was an edgy urban look that turned heads on the streets of Fort Worth.
She fluffed her curls with her fingers and smiled. She’d always pulled herself together on her terms. Now she would be helping other women know the feeling of succeeding on their own terms.
Within minutes, the shop was locked up and she walking to her Mazda, parked in the large lot behind the block of stores.
Security lights on motion detectors brightened the alley like a runway. Arms full of work materials, she pushed her key fob to unlock the hatchback when she heard a noise. No, a bark. Absolutely a bark this time.
She looked back over her shoulder to see the backdoor to the shop next to hers was ajar.
The second bark was louder. A bit high and strained. As if the dog was hurt or in trouble.
“I should mind my own business.” She talked to herself when she was nervous. A habit from childhood she’d never lost.
She shoved her armload into the back of her Mazda. “Get in the car, Carly Harrington-Reese. Lock the doors. Call the cops, and go home.”
Yes. That was the plan any sensible person would follow. But the dog was whining again, a sound so pathetic she couldn’t resist the urge to check out the source. Maybe it had run into the store looking for shelter and got stuck, or something.
She hesitated. The “or something” might be the reason she should just follow plan A and leave.
She pulled out her phone. One wrong sound or weird creak and she was speed-dialing 911.
When she pushed, the door to the empty store opened inward on a space so dark it seemed matt finished in charcoal dust. “Hello?”
Her tentative question was met with silence. “Hi. I’m Carly from next door. Anybody here?”
More silence. So far, she’d kept both feet on the outside of the threshold. She wasn’t scared of the dark. She just didn’t like being alone in unfamiliar darkness.
She switched on the flashlight of her cell phone and stepped inside.
The first thing she saw several yards into the vacant space was the reflective surface of a pair of shiny shoes. The next thing that registered were the trouser legs attached to those shoes … and then the body of a man, lying face down on the concrete floor.
“Ooh. Ooh. Dead body.” She began backpedaling toward the door. The body shivered. And then it moaned.
“Okay, so maybe not dead. Just mostly dead.” Carly slapped a hand across her mouth to stop a bubble of nervous laughter. This was too serious. The man was probably a derelict, passed out from drugs or alcohol, or maybe both. He needed help.
She stabbed the emergency button on her phone.
The questions from the other end of the line came thick and fast after her statement of her problem.
“That’s right. Man unconscious in an abandoned store. No, I don’t know him. I have no idea. Drunk or drugs?” She made herself glance back at the form. “There’s a liquor bottle by his head. And it smells funny in here. Like a gas station, maybe. No, I don’t know if he’s still breathing, and I’m not touching him to find out. Please send the police. Send an ambulance. Send somebody.” She gave her location again.
As she punched to end the call, the arc of her flashlight leaped across the man’s body to reflect a pair of eyes shining liquid in the darkness a few feet on the other side. Even as her lungs took in air to scream her brain registered the form. A dog stared at her. A big dog.
“I knew it.” Carly moved carefully in a wide arc around the man’s body toward the animal. An unfamiliar dog was definitely better company than an unconscious—please don’t let him be dying—stranger.
She held up her light so it didn’t shine directly into the animal’s eyes. He was big, with a black muzzle, golden brown cheeks, and a mostly light body. Yep, definitely a German Shepherd.
That gave her pause. A dog under stress might become aggressive. But this one was whining softly, not growling, and his ears were perked up. “It’s okay, big fella. You look like a nice dog.”
She moved a little closer, keeping her voice low and even. “You’re a shepherd, aren’t you? I had a dog growing up. His name was Cooper. He was part shepherd. Part boxer. But mostly parts unknown.”
As she closed the distance, the dog stuck out his muzzle to sniff her tentatively, cold nose dabbing the back of her curled hand. After a moment he ducked his head under her hand and pushed against it, suggesting she pet him.
She stroked down one tall ear a couple of times and then the dog moved his head again and tried to move closer to her body but came to an abrupt halt.
“What’s the matter?” She lifted her light. He wore a collar, a thick heavy leather one by the feel of it. It was attached to a leash that had been wound several times around a support post in the unfinished space. “You’re stuck. No wonder you were whimpering.”
She moved closer to pet him more strongly, feeling the tension coursing through his big body just under his fur. And there with his owner doing a face plant beside them.
Carly shook her head. She knew that some homeless people kept a dog for protection and company. But this guy wasn’t doing his canine companion any favors tonight. She rubbed the dog’s back. “It’s okay. I’ll get you out of here. You can come sit with me until the police arrive.”
At least she could spare the dog the trauma of the police and EMTs arrival with sirens blaring. If too many of them came in quickly, a tethered and stressed dog might accidently bite someone.
She put her phone back in her pocket so she could use both hands to free the animal. “You shouldn’t have to suffer because you have a—”
She glanced at the man. Now that her eyes were becoming accustomed to the light, he looked like a large bundle of clothing on the floor. He was murmuring low but not moving. Did he think she was trying to steal his dog?
The push of nervous energy nudged her and she naturally started talking. “Listen. I don’t want any part of what you were doing here. Okay? Just in case you can hear me, I’m only trying to help your dog.”
As she worked to loosen the knot in the leash, she kept glancing at the man. “I don’t mean to pass judgment. Your situation is not my business. All I’m saying is, if you’ve got time to polish your shoes, you have a minute to pull your life together. Your priorities are completely—”
It was only a soft whoosh of sound. Just like the noise her gas heater made in her former London flat when it came on. And then she understood why.
The baseboard along the far wall began to glow. She froze, her mind trying to catch up with what her eyes were seeing. Flames, little yellow licks of flickering fire. Along the wall.
That made no sense. But fire didn’t have to make sense.
Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! She felt her lips moving, but no sounds emerged. A fire had broken out.
Giving up on the leash, she unlatched the dog’s collar from it and gave him a shove. “Go! Go! Out!”
The dog swayed in the middle but didn’t move. Heavier than she thought, he apparently wasn’t going anywhere. Fine. Someone needed to save herself.
She made three steps toward the door when she looked back and saw the dog was nudging the man on the floor. That’s why he remained. The shepherd would stay with his owner, despite the risk. She was sure of it.
As if cued, the video she’d had to watch about fire safety as part of her lease agreement came to mind. It said a person only had only four minutes to escape a fire once it began.
Four minutes! She needed only five more of those two hundred and forty seconds to clear the door.
She ran back, poked the man with her foot. “Hey, you! Get up! Fire. Do you hear me?” She leaned down and yelled near his ear. “Fire! Fire!”
When he didn’t respond, she pushed his shoulder hard with both hands. The man beneath the shirt felt solid and warm. Alive. “Wake up! Please! You’re going to die!”
She bent to peer down into a face that in the dark seemed to have no features. Not even his eyes opened. Hopeless.
She forced herself not to glance at the flames climbing the far wall. But from the corner of her vision she saw smaller flames making crazy progress across the floor. What could be burning in an empty store?
The dog was whimpering and shaking, running in and licking his owner but dancing away, evidently as aware of the flames as she was.
Giving up on rousing him, she grabbed his arm and tugged. “Oh Jesus! You weigh a ton.” Frantic, she bent down, lifted one of his shoulders and shoved, trying to turn him over. His upper body twisted at an awkward angle. She pushed harder. She doubted that a back spasm would be nearly as painful as being barbecued.
When she had managed to flip him, he moaned in protest but at least he was on his back.
“Come on.” She shook his legs as sweat popped out on her forehead. “You’ve got to help me. Move! Do you hear me?” Nothing.
She grabbed one ankle in each hand and began hauling him feet first toward the door. It was only twelve feet away. But that distance seemed like twelve miles. Thankfully, her Doc Martins helped her keep traction. Another day she might have been in stilettoes.
Two hundred and forty seconds. How many of those seconds were left?
The room around her began to roar, as if a wind had suddenly sprung up. But it wasn’t wind, it was heat. Flames crawled up the wall on the far side. Others snaked across the bare concrete floor in a weird pattern she couldn’t stop to think about because it was coming toward the man. Scratch that. Toward her.
She tugged harder, cursing his bulk and her recent absence from the gym. Not that she could bench press two hundred pounds of man at any point. For a derelict, he was amazingly well fed and muscular.
Sweat streamed into her eyes. Something unseen but suffocating snaked further down her throat with every breath. Every impulse told her to abandon her burden and run. Save herself. But her hands wouldn’t let go of the body. Only her thoughts were free to run on.
I’m not a Good Samaritan. I’m so not! Please get me out of this, Sweet Baby Jesus, and I promise I’ll never do a bad deed again. Ever!
Where were the police? The EMTs? The help she’d called for what seemed like an hour ago hadn’t materialized. Why had no one come in answer to her call?
And then the dog was there beside her. He grabbed a mouthful of his owner’s pants leg and began tugging, too. The shepherd was strong, stronger than she was. His owner’s body began to slide a bit more easily across the floor.
Carly was too scared to be grateful. Too winded to even utter a word of encouragement. It was the door or die.
Fumes stung her throat and eyes but she didn’t pause to wipe away the tears blurring her vision. It was as if the flames were chasing them as she and the dog pulled the man along behind them in a mad dash for the door. It was only six feet now. Five feet. Four …
Carly tripped as she back-stepped over the threshold. It was metal, to keep refuse and water from the alley from easily entering the store. But it was enough of a speed bump to stop their progress.
Abandoning his legs, she reached forward with both hands to grab fistfuls of his jacket to try to haul him into a sitting position.
No good. He might as well have been a sack of wet cement.
She knelt down and straddled him at the chest. “Damn you! Wake up!” She struck him in the face, desperate to get a rise out of him.
She screamed as heavy hands fell on her shoulders. For a second she thought someone had come up behind her. Then she realized the man had reached up for her.
“Get off! Get off me!” Frightened, she struggled against his grip. But his fingers were like vises, making it impossible for her to get away.
The shepherd, realizing his owner was coming round, barked brightly and stuck his head in under Carly’s arm to lick the man’s face.
He was cursing under his breath and gripping her so hard she moaned. Then he lifted his head and spoke. “I don’t want to die.”
His rough husk of a voice went over her like lightning striking much too close.
The plea was a bare whisper but the look in his eyes—he’d opened his eyes!—said all that she’d been thinking. They were in absolute mortal danger.
She didn’t want to die either. Every instinct said that trying to save this stranger would only get them both killed.
As if he’d heard her thoughts, he released her with a hard push. “Go. Now!” He was giving her permission to abandon him.
Move, Carly. Move or die!
She stumbled back against his dog, who was pushed in protectively behind her knees. Even as she did, the man collapsed onto his back, his eyes falling shut.
Hopeless. You’re hopeless.
A dozen other responses zoomed through her thoughts but she didn’t have breath for any of them. Instead, she grabbed two handfuls of his jacket and pulled him upright again. “Wake up! Now!”
He moaned, his lids fluttering. Finally he seemed to realize that she was still trying to help him out of the doorway. He gripped her forearms, this time using her to leverage himself in an effort to move. His legs weren’t cooperating much, making scuffling sounds against the floor, but it made all the difference. They were moving over the barrier of the door sill.
Once in the alley, their movements activated the security lights, spotlighting them like a soundstage. For the first time she saw him clearly. He still held her shoulders, his face revealed by the alley light. He had light hair and blue eyes. A strong clean-shaven jaw, and a nice mouth even though it was twisted in pain. He was no derelict. Even in agony, he was gorgeous.
For one second all she could think was that she had probably saved the life of this very good-looking man. Even as she thought it, Carly scolded herself. The fact that he was good-looking was about as useful as noticing the color of a balloon attached to an eighteen-wheeler that had just run her down.
The heat from the doorway suddenly pushed against them like the belched breath of a dragon.
Carly was up on her feet in an instant.
Close the door. It was the only thought in her head. As if by doing so she could contain every bit of the superheated inferno inside.
He grabbed her ankle and sent her sprawling into the concrete walkway. Even as she fell, the man who minutes before had been unconscious flopped over her, covering her body with his. A second after that, something exploded inside the store, spewing heat and flame through the exit.
Too stunned to cry out, it took her three tries to draw a breath. Even then, all she could do was lie there and sob.
“It’s okay. It’s okay.” Still lying over her, he was whispering into her ear and awkwardly patting her cheek. “You did—good.”
Carly closed her eyes and just tried to breathe.
* * *
“We’ve got all we need tonight. I’ll let the EMTs finish checking you out.”
Carly didn’t even smile at the man who identified himself as an arson investigator. Before him, a police officer had interviewed her. Both had asked questions until she no longer had breath or answers for them.
Breathing in oxygen through the mask the EMT had given her, she sat on the bumper of an ambulance parked well away from the fire. Other than hugging the dog who had miraculously ducked in under her arms while the EMTs looked her over, she had no energy left for anything. The dog, poor baby, looked as miserable as she felt. Probably that was because his owner had been scooped up and carted away.
She had watched the ambulance containing the man pull away from the curb, sirens blaring, and felt nothing but relief.
He wasn’t her problem anymore. That man was not part of her world. Not her responsibility. Even so, she glanced up at the EMT hovering over her.
“Is he going to be okay?”
The EMT shrugged, avoiding eye contact. “I heard them say he was breathing. You a friend?”
Carly shook her head. “Never saw him before in my life.”
The EMT’s gaze shifted to her face. “They said you pulled him out of the fire. That took a lot of courage.”
Carly’s turn to shrug. “I was just trying to save a dog.” Instantly, she was ashamed. Yet accepting the burden of admitting she was trying to save another human being seemed like boasting on her part. But to say less would be a lie. “That’s how I found him. I couldn’t not help.”
“You have professional training as a first responder?”
Carly shook her head.
“Most civilians would have waited for first responders.” The EMT grinned at her. “Still, I respect what you did. Can I do anything more for you before we load you up for the ride to the hospital?”
Carly shook her head. “No hospital.” She just needed to lie down somewhere quiet for a very long time. But no! She had a ton of things left to do before the opening of Flawless.
It wasn’t until that moment that she thought to turn her head back down the street toward her shop.
The front door was open and a huge fire hose penetrated it. Which meant …
Copyright © 2016 by D. D. Ayres