Watch Me Burn
copyright 2011, Enfleurage
A/N: I spent time reviewing the original series (thank you Netflix & Hulu) and IMDB and it appears that both the Los Angeles County Sheriff's department and the LAPD appear on scene with Squad or Engine 51, occasionally in the same episode. Since jurisdictions aren't clearly drawn, I've made a couple of specific references but am generally using the word 'police' as a reference to local law enforcement, not necessarily specifically the LAPD.
"What the hell were you thinking?" Vince thundered. "Why didn't you wait for me or another deputy to arrive on scene to handle it?"
Stanley pulled a breath in through his nose and slowly exhaled, then turned and jerked his head at the woman being treated by his paramedics. "She couldn't wait." And then he gave a pointed look towards where the upper story of the bungalow used to exist, the structure that had collapsed into the fire-gutted first floor about forty-five seconds after McDowell pulled everyone out of and away from the house, which was about ninety seconds after Gage and DeSoto had walked out with the victim. "You guys are usually here before we are. What happened?" he asked, deliberately lowering his voice into a friendly, non-confrontational tone.
He wasn't sure if it was the words or his tone but as Vince sighed, much of the bluster seemed to leak away and Vince sat down next to him on the tailboard at the back of Engine 51.
"There was a unit on the way, would've been here before you but on his way, he witnessed a bad MVA at Torrance and Normandie. Five cars, DUI, teenagers and fatalities involved." He shook his head and they both, as fathers of teenagers, had an uneasy, stomach-churning moment. "That one's ugly; there's three patrol cars, two Engine companies and two Squads, all probably still there. Dispatch sent me over as soon as I was cleared from a different scene."
"Now why don't you tell me what happened."
"Okay." And then he wasn't sure where to start. He wrapped a hand around the back of his neck and dug fingers into the accumulated tension, trying to work it out as he decided on the right starting point.
"You sure you're not hurt?"
"I'm fine." He grinned. "A bunch of mother hens, all of you. Look, the safety was engaged, not that we knew that when he was pointing the gun at us, but everyone walked away okay and we got the victim out."
Vince opened his notebook and gave Hank a skeptical look.
"You'd better start from the top."
Stanley sucked in a breath and started with something familiar, something normal. "Station 51 arrived on scene about 20:15, flames were visible from the rear of the one-and-half story wood frame structure and there was already a lot of smoke, inside and out. There was a car parked on the street directly in front of the house." He pointed to the battered green coupe that still sat there. "It was blocking us from direct access to the hydrant. We pulled up in front of the car so there would be room for the other responding companies.
"I split my guys into two teams – Lopez with DeSoto, Kelly with Gage – and told each to pull an inch and half and told Stoker to run a supply line from the hydrant. Then I saw the guy standing on the lawn in front of the house so I ran over, asked him if it was his house and if there was anyone inside."
He closed his eyes and the scene was perfectly clear in his head.
"He identified himself as the owner and said there was no one in the house." Opening his eyes, he shook his head, frowning as he searched for the right words. "I don't know, Vince. There was just something that seemed… I asked him if he was sure there was no one in the house and he said, yeah, he was sure. So I deployed my guys and we started putting water on the fire and making sure it didn't spread since the side yards are pretty narrow in this neighborhood, twenty, twenty-five feet between houses. And then the guy said it was a shame about the house, it was a nice house, but it looked like it was a goner and maybe we should protect the neighbors' houses."
In his head, he could hear the man's voice, could hear the funny little tone in his voice when he'd said that. At the time he was trying to figure out if the guy was trying not to cry or break down at the loss of his house or if they were dealing with a possible arson.
"So the house was pretty much a loss already?" Vince asked, quietly eliciting.
"That's the thing," Stanley shook his head. "At that point, the back was a loss. It would definitely have to be torn down and completely rebuilt, but the rest was still intact, some smoke damage, some water damage, but salvageable assuming we kept the fire contained to the back."
Stanley nodded. "I told him just that, that the back – the kitchen - was gone but I thought we could still save the house which you'd think would be good news. He gave me kind of a funny look." He grimaced. "So I stepped a bit closer to him, to see if he smelled like gasoline or any of the usual accelerants. He didn't, but he smelled like smoke, a lot more than someone who'd been standing where he was standing should smell considering the smoke was just lying on top of that house. So I starting asking him general questions, the standard stuff – were you the one who called it in, do you know how the fire started, were you in the house when it started - and he kept shaking his head, telling me no. He said a neighbor must have called it in."
"Two or three neighbors called it in."
"Then I asked him about his heating system – gas or electric - and if he stored any accelerants in the house and he said, almost as if he wasn't really thinking about it, that his wife was an artist and she kept her paints and a lot of solvents on the upper floor."
"Huh…" Vince said quietly, under his breath, his pencil scratching on paper.
"I asked him where his wife was and he started to act annoyed, told me to just do my job and make sure the neighborhood didn't burn down. He said he didn't care about the house, to let it go but make sure it didn't spread."
He paused. Everything after that had happened so quickly, he wanted to get it straight in his head.
"I asked him again where his wife was and he told me it was none of my damn business and he sounded…" He exhaled a breath hard and thought about how he'd describe it to Chief Miller, because sure as hell that was the next person who'd be asking. "He sounded irate. I asked him how he could be so sure that she wasn't inside if he hadn't been in the house when the fire started and he just stared at me. That's usually when they realize that it's possible that someone might be in the house, but he just kept staring at me and he told me he was sure. And then he got nasty, asked me if there was something wrong with me, said he'd already told me that there was no one inside. "
He shrugged his shoulders. "I knew he was lying so I turned around and yelled for Gage and DeSoto, told them to mask up and head inside. I told them that there might be someone still inside."
"And what did he do?"
"Walked towards the car that blocked the hydrant. I thought maybe he was going to sit down in it and watch us. He wasn't going to go anywhere in it because we'd kind of blocked him in, the Engine in front of the car, the Squad behind."
"And then what happened?"
The clear picture in his head went fuzzy for a moment and Stanley licked lips that had suddenly gone dry.
"Roy and John had their masks and tanks on and were running towards the house, Marco was working the fire at the back of house and Chet was coming around to back up Gage and DeSoto…"
Funny that his gut was icing over now, in recollection; he hadn't felt a thing when it had gone down.
"…Stoker was working the Engine and he yelled…"
He licked his lips again.
"Mike yelled, 'Cap, he's got a gun,' and I turned around because I'd been looking at the house, making sure it was still structurally sound enough to send Roy and John inside. We all turned around and everyone just froze."
He breathed, in and out, unnerved at how much this was bothering him now.
"Jesus, Vince, give me a minute. I'm acting like a probie at his first big fire."
He leaned forward and rested his face in hands that were shaking like a 3 on the Richter scale and listened to Vince's pencil scratching in his notepad, hoping he wasn't writing this part down.
"You ever had a gun pointed at you before, Hank?"
Vince was using his victim voice, quiet, supportive, not condemning, but Stanley still felt like an idiot. He was a Professional Firefighter for God's sake. He led other firefighters into situations that gave most people nightmares. Or at least the sane people, his wife liked to remind him.
"Well, you know, in Basic, sure..." he said towards the ground, not yet willing to lift his head or show that his hands were shaking.
"Not the same," Vince said, in not quite his victim voice, maybe the tone he used with his kids after they'd woken from a nightmare. "You and I both know that in Basic, it's a controlled environment. Even in the live fire exercises, you knew the guidelines: you kept your head down and you wouldn't get hurt. It's not combat by a long shot."
It was nice of Vince not to mention that Basic Training was nearly twenty years ago and like most teenagers, he'd still had illusions of indestructibility back then.
Head still lowered, he glanced to his left. "So what you're telling me is that I'm acting like a Police department probie?"
Vince snorted, which sounded as if he was relieved that Hank was regaining his mental footing.
"If it makes you feel better, the shit you guys do on a daily basis would make me wet my pants inside of five minutes."
That was clearly his cue to suck it up and get back to making his statement, though he had to admit that it did make him feel a little less like a terrified wet-behind-the-ears boot.
He sat up a little, still resting his elbows on his knees for stability.
"So after Mike yelled, we all turned around and sure enough, the guy had a gun in his hand, a pistol, and he told us to stop."
"Where was he pointing the gun?"
"Um, at me first but then he kind of waved his arm and the gun around, making the point that he was talking to all of us, or aiming at all of us."
"Do you remember what he said?"
Vince didn't stress the question or insert the word 'exactly' but Stanley knew it was important to get this right, which wasn't difficult; he was pretty sure he was going to be hearing that voice in his head for a long time.
"He said, 'Stop what you're doing. Don't go in that house. Just let it burn, I want to watch it burn.'"
"Oh yeah." Stanley exhaled. "Right about that time we started hearing screams from inside, which made Roy and John anxious. They just wanted to get in there and get her out. I mean we all wanted to get her out but trying to pull either one of them away from a rescue is like trying to pull a hunting dog off a scent. Both of them started moving around, kind of shifting from side to side, wanting to run in."
"He said, the guy said 'Don't move, don't any of you move' and then he told Chet and Marco to turn off their hoses because, you know, even though they'd frozen in place, the nozzles were still open and the water was keeping the fire contained."
"So what did Chet and Marco do?"
"They were watching me, waiting for direction."
He could see it clearly in his head, Chet Kelly's face scrunching into confusion, saw the question on his face coalesce into a single word, 'Cap?'
"Roy had his hand on John's arm, holding him back from doing anything stupid, and the guy started getting agitated because Chet and Marco didn't shut down the hoses when he told them to."
"So what happened next?"
"He said," Stanley sucked in a breath. "He said, 'If you don't turn those hoses off now, I'll kill him. And then I'll kill the rest of you.'"
"Who did he mean when he said 'him?'"
"He was pointing the gun at me when he said it. And then he turned and pointed it at Mike and then swung back again and aimed it at Roy and John." He listened to his own harsh breaths for a few seconds. "Chet and Marco shut the hoses down." He swallowed. "We could hear the woman's screams more clearly with the water turned off. He kept saying 'let it burn, I want to watch it burn.'"
"Okay, Hank, what happened next?"
"You realize it's taking longer to tell you this than when it actually happened, right?" He wiped his face. "It was less than a minute from start to end."
"Yeah, I know."
"Okay, so with the hoses shut down, the fire started advancing and I think we all knew we were going to listen to her die if we didn't do something. Stoker was trying to catch my attention, he had his hand on the compartment where we keep the pike pole and I'm guessing he was thinking that if I could distract the guy, he could whack him with it. Chet and Marco didn't turn a hose on him, probably because they were afraid he'd start shooting at the rest of us. The guy was waving the pistol around enough that I finally got a good look at entire weapon, not just at the barrel. It was a .45, looked like a standard Army Officer sidearm, and I could see that the manual safety was engaged…"
Vince groaned. "Tell me you didn't do what I think you did"
"I was less than ten feet from the guy. I gave Stoker a heads up, he made a noise and as soon as the guy turned, I was on him. Five seconds later, the rest of my crew were helping me hold him down."
"Where's the gun? Did you touch it?"
"In the cab of the Engine, on my seat. And yeah, I touched it when I knocked it out of his hand but I was wearing gloves." He held up his hands, fingers outstretched.
"Can I have them?"
"My gloves?" Stanley sat up straight. "Are you serious?"
"I assume you have a backup pair, otherwise I'm sure the Fire Department will issue you some new ones. We're going to need every bit of physical evidence from the scene."