Burning Now

an excerpt

Chapter 1



When Vanya glanced up at the clock, he was mildly startled to see that it was one-thirty in the morning. Planning the food order for the restaurant for the following week had taken more time tonight than he had anticipated. He sat at his desk, tucked into an awkward corner of the main kitchen. After seven months as the head chef for the small Russian-Ukranian bistro, you'd think the job would get easier, but it seemed like the owners and managers were dumping more and more responsibilities in his lap.

The order didn't have to be submitted until tomorrow evening, so if he left just a little unfinished, he'd be okay. Vanya stacked everything in some semblance of organization on the desk. Oh damn, he realized he'd left the recipe for the kharcho he wanted to test run tomorrow at lunch in his car. It would only take a few minutes to run out and grab it, then he could leave it on the desk for easy access, and that way he could get some help with prep.

Vanya slipped out the back door of the kitchen. Wow, the temperature had really dropped. December in Minneapolis was pretty bitter and the light cotton pants and chef's coat he wore did little to protect him. He crossed the empty parking lot at a hurried pace, pulling his car keys from his pocket. As he pushed the button on the key to unlock the car door and started to reach for the handle, a man stepped out of the shadows. The man was dressed in a heavy, dark coat with the hood pulled up.

"Gimme your wallet," the man spat out, waving a gun in Vanya's face.

Holy shit... Vanya sucked in a sharp breath. "I haven't got a w-wallet on m-me."

"What do you mean? I want your money!" the man snapped.

"It's in my coat pocket. I left my coat inside," Vanya babbled.

"Then gimme the fucking car keys!"

Vanya handed them over with shaking fingers, and turned to flee. A loud bang shattered the night and a bolt of agony seared along the side of Vanya's head. He fell, blinded by pain, hitting the snow-dusted asphalt. Behind him, he dimly heard the sound of the motor starting and the car pulling away.

He was cold, icy cold and the pain was so disorienting he couldn't move more than his fingers. He needed warmth. Heat. Preferably flames. As the reflex part of his brain overrode coherent thought, his body began to change.

****

No fire was ever done until all the hot spots had been extinguished, and the chief declared it out. Gideon Sato poked through the rubble of the warehouse with his pike pole. The men of Station 18 had spent most of the night getting the blaze under control and out. Smoky steam still drifted up from numerous spots of semi-collapsed debris. Gideon hooked the end of the pike under one suspicious looking metal slab that had probably fallen from above and flipped it back.

He froze. A filthy soot covered pair of bare feet protruded from under smaller chunks of debris. Aw hell. There was a victim. Gideon shouted back over his shoulder at a colleague. "Hey Victa, got a crispy critter over here. Better tell Cap we're going to need a body bag."

"Got it," Victa replied.

Gideon began to shift some more of the debris. The feet and lower legs weren't charred. Interesting. He pushed away chunks of burned boxes and there was an overlapping set of metals rods held off the floor by a toasted ex-washing machine. As Gideon shoved back the rods and a layer of burnt cardboard, there was a whole body beneath, lying face down. Wow. Whole as in filthy dirty but completely unburned. Also very, very naked. Mr. Dead-of-Smoke-Inhalation was one deliciously built guy. Ewww. Gideon gave himself a little shake. Skeevving on a dead body was just gross. Still, he did have to wonder why the guy was naked.

Was there any chance there was some ID under the body? Given the whole lack of clothing thing, it seemed like an iffy proposition, but who knew. Gideon reached down and grabbed the man's shoulder. As he rolled the man over the slack flop of the victim's arm hit some of the debris. The man's eyes fluttered weakly open and he groaned a faint, "Ow."

Gideon just about pissed himself. Holy shit, the guy was still alive! "Victa, no body bag! We need a medic now! The guy's alive!" He knelt down and touched a hand to the man's face. "Hang on, help's coming."

The man gave him a blearily unfocused look, and shivered. Even though it was midday, the temperature was only in the forties. Gideon yanked off his gloves, hastily shed his turnout coat and began wrapping it around the naked guy. The victim had what looked like blond hair, but since it was coated in soot and ash it was hard to tell for sure. There was a deep gouge along one side of his head and it appeared to be half filled with clotted blood and dirt. Beyond that, Gideon couldn't see any obvious injuries.

"Whermy?" the man muttered.

"Huh? Here, let me get this around you. You have to be suffering hypothermia at this temperature with no clothes."

"Where am I?" the man asked again, this time his speech a little clearer. He clutched at Gideon's hand.

There was something odd about the touch of the injured man's hand on Gideon's skin, a weird sort of familiarity. "In a burnt out appliance warehouse on Lomas Street. What's your name?"

"Vanya."

That was a strange name, Gideon guessed it had some sort of ethnic origin. "Uh, okay, Vanya. Were you sleeping here in the building?" He was trying to figure out why the man would be naked in a burnt building. Maybe the guy was homeless?

"Not sleeping."

"How'd you get in a burning building?" Gideon asked.

"I'm c-cold."

Obviously the guy was a little out of it, Gideon thought. At that point the EMT and Victa arrived, with a Stokes basket, oxygen and the drugs box.

"He's talking?" asked Miller, one of the EMTs.

"Yeah, some, he's kind of disoriented though," replied Gideon.

"Talking at all's a good sign," said Miller. "Is it safe enough for me to spend a couple of minutes checking him out or do we need to grab and go?"

"A few minutes is okay, but I haven't had time check out this area too well for residual hot spots."

The Stokes basket was set down in a relatively clear area a few feet from Vanya, and Miller began to examine him. Vanya shivered again, still hanging onto Gideon's hand.

"What's your name?" asked Miller.

"Vanya Stravinsky."

"Do you know what year it is?"

"Two thousand thirteen," answered Vanya.

"Good. Where are you?"

"No idea. The fireman said a warehouse?"

"It looks like you might have a concussion from the head injury," said Miller, easing the oxygen mask over Vanya's face. Miller listened to Vanya's chest. "But your breath sounds are surprisingly decent." He hooked the pulse oximeter to Vanya's finger. "Your oxygen sats are pretty close to normal. Hey Victa, can you go get another blanket? We need to get him warmed up pretty fast."

Victa trotted back in the direction of the vehicles.

"Okay Vanya, you're in a lot better shape than I expected. We're going to put you in the basket as a precaution to get you out of here. I don't want to injure your feet on the broken glass and all the other stuff on the floor, and I'm still not sure you don't have some cracked bones," Miller explained.

Vanya nodded.

"Sato, you think you can help lift him over to the Stokes?" asked Miller.

"Yeah sure," Gideon replied. He slid his arms under Vanya's armpits and helped the EMT lift the man into the basket. They waited another minute for Victa to come jogging back with the blanket. It was hastily tucked around Vanya and then they carried the basket from the building.

****