Secret Flames

an excerpt



Prologue



FIRE CHIEF PATRICK RODGERS DIES IN MASSIVE FIRE; PLASTICS PLANT BURNED TO GROUND



Special Report by Kent Crandall



White Pine, NY. In what can only be described as a fierce inferno that ripped through the lives of many residents of our small Adirondack town, a factory that employed dozens lies in rubble, while the local fire chief has perished in what all are calling an ironic, sad twist on the life of a town and its people.

The Lucky Scent Factory was decidedly unlucky on this cold night in April, as flames shot out from its roof even before the first respondents could arrive. Before long the entire building was engulfed in towering flames and by night's end, one man was dead, seasoned chief of White Pine's fire department, Patrick "Paddy" Rodgers.

"He was on the roof of the building," said Dicky Tenders, a volunteer firefighter who helped battle the flames. "But that was Chief Rodgers, he didn't send his men to do a job he wouldn't have done himself. Forty years battling fires, I suppose it was inevitable that one fire managed to get the best of him."

"It's all destroyed, a factory that was the lifeblood of this village, and now we find many of our locals without jobs and our lives without the beating heart at its center, Chief Rodgers," spoke Sally Curtis, a one-time Lucky Scent factory worker who has been on disability since injuring her leg in a freak accident two years ago and owner now of Sally's Dive on Main Street. "I loved that old place, no matter what it did to me. And I loved Chief Rodgers."

Firefighters battled the flames--and high winds--long into the night, and by morning were exhausted from their efforts. At about three a.m. the roof collapsed, taking with it Chief Rodgers. Two others firefighters managed to escape injury, clinging to the hook and ladder as it brought them safely to ground. Chief Rodgers sent his men before him.

"He wouldn't leave, he wouldn't go first," spoke Austin Hawkins, one of the firefighters rescued. "He loved his men, would do anything for them--and he did."

There is no word from the Lucky Scent owners at present, but the Rodgers family issued the following statement: "Our patriarch, our leader, not just of the family but of all of White Pine, has been taken from us, and we all mourn his passing with tremendous grief. But he died with his boots on, and he would be the first to tell you he'd have it no other way."

Chief Rodgers is survived by his wife of forty-eight years, Trudy, and his son, Eric, 37, and his wife, Lacey, and their two children, Patrick and Penny, and other son Trent Rodgers, 32. All make their home in White Pine. Trent Rodgers is also a member of the White Pine Fire Department, and he too was active in finally putting to rest a fire that has consumed us all. He was slightly injured in the fire, though no one has confirmed how the injury occurred.

Funeral arrangements are pending. As for how the fire started, that will be left to investigators to sort out. "Nothing can be ruled out yet," spoke assistant fire chief Devon O'Connell. "But at the moment arson is not suspected, it's just an accident, one that has forever changed us."

The Lucky Scent Co. were purveyors of pine-scented air-fresheners for the car. For days after the fire, White Pine smelled even more glorious than usual.

Part One



"If You Can't Stand the Heat, Get out of the Bedroom" Chapter One

J.D.



Feeling the blazing heat baking his skin, he began to stir. When he finally awoke, he realized he hadn't really been sleeping, not the natural slumber most people associated with overnight. He wasn't tucked in bed, safely encased in blankets or the warm embrace of a passionate lover. He wasn't even indoors, protected from the untamed wild. No, as he came to--which is really more appropriate, as though he'd been passed out or beaten unconscious--he discovered he was lying in a thorny bed of pine needles, his gaze looking through cracks in the tree branches and into the waking sky. It was a strange place to find himself, an even stranger place to have fallen asleep. As he attempted to get to his feet, his head felt suddenly heavy and he fell back against the soft ground.

"Ooww," he said to no one.

His voice, even to him, sounded foreign.

He blinked, once, twice, and finally the fog around his eyes began to lift. Sunshine slid into the slits of his eyes, allowing them to open with fresh new life. It was almost as though he was being reborn, his body bathed in the dew of morning. That's when he noticed he was half-dressed, or perhaps half-naked was more in line with the truth. His feet were bare, no shoes or socks, and he was clad only in a pair of jeans, the knees scuffed, dried mud on the cuffs. No sign of a shirt near him.

Attempting to sit up again, he pushed past the pain in his head. He gazed at the rest of his body, assessing any cuts or bruises…any blood. Checking his arms first, nothing injurious jumped out at him, just a downy coating of brown hair on his forearms, pine needles stuck to the wiry tufts. He brushed one arm, then the other, pine needles dropping effortlessly to the ground. He found no trace of injury. Same for his torso, pine needles galore and no obvious wounds, just a generous covering of dark brown hair upon his chest, a thick trail sliding down his belly in a swirling swath. He wiped at his chest, again dispensing with the pine needles that had imbedded themselves in the springy mat. He would need a good hot shower to wash off all the entrails on what appeared to be a pretty hairy body. But why should such a fact surprise him? Didn't he know himself, his body and his own self?

Good question.

He didn't have the answer.

At the moment he couldn't even come up with his name.

He paused, closing his eyes in an effort to find answers. The pain in his head pulsed, overtaking all he was thinking about, and so he stopped trying. He was merely disoriented, he assured himself, his name would come to him soon enough, his name and the absent details of his life. He ran a hand across his face, where he felt the scruff of a beard--not full, but not a mere five o'clock shadow darkening his cheeks either. Which meant he hadn't shaved in awhile, and what exactly did that mean? Had he been unconscious for that long…for days? Such a notion seemed improbable. Probably the scruff was his style, the deliberate stubble of a guy who knew it complimented his look. Not the corporate type, that much he could gather. He certainly wasn't all business now, what with his state of undress and his not knowing where he was…or who he was.

Yeah, who was he, anyway?

How he wished he could answer that.

With nothing else to do but wait for his mind to clear, he focused his attention on his surroundings. All around him were towering trees, not exactly a forest but plentiful enough for him to be shielded from any curious passersby; he could easily be missed. Brushy ground, rocks and patches of thick grass encroached on his bare feet. He'd have to watch his step. What he next noticed was that he wasn't cold, not with warm rays of sunshine peeking through gaps in the trees. He guessed he was either in a naturally warm climate, or summer was at its peak. Nearby he heard a trickling sound, and he assumed it was a body of water, a creek or river. Perhaps a splash of water to his face would help rejuvenate him.

He padded forward, the bed of pine needles soft against the bottom of his feet. He followed the sound of the water, emerging out from under the protective covering of the trees and into an open field with a breathtaking view. He was atop a mountain and around him all he saw was lush, verdant land, nature's glory when civilization didn't intrude. In the distance he noticed a canyon, and stretching between one side and another was a steel bridge, its expanse taunting him, like a gleaming metal link to his past. As though on the other side of that bridge awaited his life. As he neared the edge of a cliff, he could see the river below, nearly a two hundred foot drop. A dizzying, chilling wave hit him hard and he had to close his eyes to refocus. Was he up for the climb down the hill? Not certain his bare feet could handle the rough terrain, or whether his body could handle any further trauma. Besides, did it lead where he wanted? Was it where he'd come from?

Where the hell was he?

Did any of this land look familiar to him?

He had to stop asking himself so many questions.

He had no answers for any of them.

Realizing he had little choice but to forge ahead, he turned back to the spot where he'd awakened. He would give it a good search to make sure there were no clues buried about, hints to help from figure out who he was or how he'd gotten here. Fingering through the needles and nearby brush, he hunted for anything: his shirt, a wallet, shards of a shattered life that might offer up any hint of his identity. He came up empty, left only with dirtied fingers and a lingering sense that something bad had happened to him. Was anyone even looking for him? Was he anywhere near his home? Did he have a wife, children, parents…or maybe just a lover who was going out of his mind with worry?

Wait. Why had he thought him?

Because it had just come out, and it was the first natural response he'd felt since returning to consciousness. Okay, so he had a male lover, so that meant he was gay, big deal. His head couldn't have suffered any permanent damage if he could ascertain that much about himself from a simple, instinctual thought. Perhaps he just needed food, drink, nourishment to help replenish his lost memories. Deciding he had best find shelter, someone who could help him, he turned in the opposite direction of the expansive bridge, hoping he would come to some highway or road, where a motorist could offer him a lift to the nearest hospital or town or wherever. He wondered about his appearance. Would he look threatening, all disheveled and near-naked, a hairy Bigfoot emerging from the forest? Or was he an appealing package, with boy-next-door good looks? He didn't even know that much.

He walked at a steady pace, his strong legs keeping him moving. He was in good shape, which was promising, and as such probably meant he was also in good health--memory problems notwithstanding. For more than an hour he charted the rising sun, figuring by its position that it was just past nine in the morning. It was a gorgeous day, with blue skies and a few fluffy clouds passing in the gentle wind. He was thirsty, though, and he began to feel his progress slow. Pace yourself, preserve any fluids your body might still be retaining. Last thing he needed was to sweat himself into dehydration.

As he crested over a steep hill, there was still no sign of civilization. No road, not a soul to encounter, just more wooded fields. But wait, what was that? His eyes detected something through the trees…a building? He felt his heart beat a bit faster at the notion of having stumbled upon something or someone, and he found his legs moving forward with renewed energy. If nothing else, there would be water there. Emerging into the clearing, he saw a small cabin, built of wood, not overly large but comfortable enough, certainly fine with his purposes. A covered porch accompanied it, and as he rounded the cabin, he saw a freestanding shed nearby and a driveway that led down a winding road. Surely that led to a main road.

But first, he would see if anyone was home, someone to help him. He hadn't seen a car, but perhaps two people lived here, one gone, the other home. Approaching the cabin with a fresh reluctance, it occurred to him that a stranger just walking up could rattle the occupant. Wasn't knocking on the door better than calling out a name? What was the protocol in such a situation? Last thing he wanted was to startle someone.

So he knocked, the gesture as familiar and normal as anything he'd done this morning. No response, so he knocked again on the screen door. He searched for a bell, but found none. Opening the screen door, he banged on the glass of the front door, peering in through the holes of an old, white lace curtain. He couldn't see anyone moving about; just blocky furniture, nothing fancy. A second home, a family's wooded retreat. Perhaps it was closed for the season?

Surely not at this time of year, this cabin would be an ideal place in which to come to spend lazy summer days. He tried the doorknob and found it turned easily. A trusting soul lived here. He entered the building, still calling out, "Hello, hey, is anyone here? I'm in need of help, and I mean no harm…anyone?"

He realized this was the first he'd really heard his voice this morning. All the words he'd exchanged with himself had been internal, and now, echoing in the silent cabin, he wondered if it sounded right? How would he know what his voice sounded like? Speaking of, he made his way to a bathroom, where a mirror would finally shed light on his features. He peered at himself to see a messy shock of brown hair, tumbling easily down his forehead; wide brown eyes and rows of even, white teeth, cheeks darkened with scruff, all stared back at him like a mystery. His face was handsome, or so he imagined others thinking so; such a shallow thought offered him strange comfort. As he looked more closely at his face, he saw the hint of blood on his forehead, near the left temple. Why hadn't he felt that wound? It was a slight cut, not deep enough to gush blood, but there was no denying the dried remnants of whatever injury he'd suffered. Was that what was causing his memory loss?

He left it alone for now. He turned on the faucet, bent down and just let the water flow directly into his dry mouth. He sucked down gulp after gulp, immediately feeling better. But he didn't want to overdo it, who knew how long he'd gone without? To get bloated now would not serve him well. He finished by splashing his face with a generous handful of cold water, drops cascading down his chin and dampening his chest. He brushed at the thick hair, liking its coarse feel. He could practically dry his hands in the dark mat, the knowledge and sensation causing a rippling effect through his body. Inside his jeans, he felt the first stirring of his cock.

"How about that," he said to his mirror image, a smile gracing his lips, "you are alive."

He emerged from the bathroom, refreshed, now with thoughts of food, nourishment. But the comfortable, ratty sofa in the corner of the living room called to him. On the table beside the sofa he noticed an eight by ten photograph in an old metal frame. Pictured were two men, an attractive white-blonde guy who appeared to be in his twenties, the second man older, seasoned, with thick white hair and a wide, engaging smile. Each man wore the same gray T-shirt with the words "White Pine Fire Department" emblazoned on the front, and they had their arms around each other, a memento from a happy moment. White Pine. He tossed the name around in his mind; it was a place, but didn't sound familiar to him. He wondered, too, who these men were. Beside the photograph was a news clipping from the White Pine Gazette.

Perhaps the men in the photograph had something to do with this article; why else would it have been placed there? But right now any answers as to who the two men were would have to wait for another time. He stretched out on the sofa as tension left his body. He sunk into the comfort of the worn cushions, realizing he was, for now, safe and secure. This must be how Goldilocks had felt, he thought, and then again taking note of his hairy chest figured he'd more likely be cast in the role of one of the bears. His laugh bounced against bare walls.

He fell asleep almost instantly.

This sofa was just right.

But his sleep was not. He imagined the bridge he'd seen this morning, hugged himself tighter as that now-familiar chill ripped through him.