Hoping things were going okay with his brother, Joe drove his metallic-blue Camaro from the Morton’s through the streets toward the Bayport Arena. He’d been able to buy the car a few months earlier at a discount after he and Frank had saved the life of the owner of a car dealership, who had been threatened by a gang. Both brothers had gotten to purchase a Chevrolet of their choice. As Joe liked to say, sweet deals on sweet rides.
With Joe tapping his thumb on the steering wheel of the cool sounding Camaro, he and his girl listened to a good tune playing on a favorite satellite channel. Joe’s eyes twinkled as words to the song made him think of his and Iola’s evening they had planned. He had eaten a delicious dinner with the Mortons then he and Iola were heading to a concert. They would enjoy the great music of a soulful band they both liked then they would get something to eat. After that, he would take her back to the Morton home and they would sit out on the porch swing, talking and kissing. A lot.
Iola smiled as she saw Joe’s grin. She couldn’t quite sit still listening to the music coming through the speakers. The sound was catchy and fun.
They sang along to the song and laughed when Iola missed one of the words. Actually, Joe thought she had just improved the song.
“I like your version even better,” he told her, grinning.
“You’re goofy,” she laughed, brushing a curl away from her face.
“For you,” he agreed.
She smiled in pleasure at his heartfelt words, knowing what he meant. “Goofy can be good.”
He laughed. “Yeah, you can relate to goofy, huh?”
“Yeah, I’m related to goofy, if you’re talking about Chet,” Iola answered with a teasing grin, making Joe laugh again.
Another song began and Joe sent a quick, thousand-watt grin over at her. “You know that song is about you, talking about powerful love, with you being willing to put up with the danger that goes along with the cases and all by dating me, and helping solve them,” Joe said.
“Brave, aren’t I?” Iola asked playfully.
“Yeah, you could call it that.” Joe’s grin was staying on his face.
“Among other things, right?” Iola smiled. Then she was quiet a moment before saying, “To let danger or fear of danger stand in the way of our love wouldn’t be right.”
“We’re a soul match, meant to be.” Joe nodded in agreement.
Iola’s eyes sparkled with love while her words were teasing, “So you’re worth putting up with everything.”
Joe snickered, knowing the expression that would be on her face. “Nice. Thank you.”
“No problem. It’s important to let your love know how you feel. Hmmm, did I read that on a Dove chocolate wrapper?”
Now Joe laughed out loud. “Oh, is that where you get all of the sweet things you say to me?”
“I say sweet things?” she asked in faux shock.
“Once in a while, when you can’t seem to help it, yeah,” Joe said, grinning.
“Wow, I better be careful.”
Joe’s smile said that he loved her and her fun ways were in tune with his. “You’re cute.”
“Are we going to argue? You are cute.”
“Can’t we both be cute?”
“I guess so.” Joe continued to grin.
The next song started and they immediately began singing along again. It wasn’t as good as the previous song, but it was listenable and harmonizing together made it fun.
Once that song was over, Joe thought out loud as he often did around Iola. “Wonder how Frank is.”
“Hopefully enjoying a good meal. I’ve never met the girl who won the bid, so I don’t know much about her. Callie tried to find out what she could, which wasn’t much. Mostly just that she transferred here a very short time ago from NYU, what her major is, and that her address is blocked.”
“Yeah, I didn’t get to meet her either, just saw her. Like you said, he should be having a good meal since the food’s great at the Riviera.” Joe’s eyes glanced over to his girl real quick before looking back to the road in front of them. He cleared his throat. “Little secret. I ran her name and face through the databases. No warrants, domestic or international. No priors. No BOLOs issued for her.”
The corners of Iola’s lips lifted a little. “And Frank is the overprotective one.”
Joe made a face. “Yeah, I hear you. But I figured it wouldn’t hurt to check.”
“Seriously, though, that probably was a good idea,” Iola noted thoughtfully, glancing out into the night, a speculative look on her pretty face. “Can’t be too careful considering all of the enemies you guys have made fighting crime.”
“My thoughts exactly,” Joe said.
“Callie was trying to figure out whether Olive was prettier than her or if Frank would think so,” Iola told him.
“Callie has nothing to worry about,” Joe said. “Frank loves her.”
“Yeah, that’s what I told her.” Iola nodded.
Turning onto another street they practically felt as much as heard a sudden huge explosion that seemed to reverberate for long seconds.
“What was that?!?!” Joe asked, his heart thudding as his eyes sought out the source.
Looking in the direction where the awful noise had come from and seeing the wisps of smoke rising, they right away began to pray. And head in that direction.
As soon as possible, Joe accessed the road he sought with a smooth turn of the wheel. With his car now on course with the blaze, he heard the sirens of police responding quickly and the fire department, a little farther away, sounding its alarm. It didn’t take Joe and Iola long to navigate the streets, taking a shortcut as he saw the backup ahead.
All the time Joe was praying in his soul. He wanted to call his brother, hear his voice, and know already that he wasn’t in the explosion.
Iola didn’t want to say out loud what she knew Joe had already thought. The smoke was coming from the same direction as the restaurant where Frank was. She slipped her phone out of her purse and called the elder Hardy brother. She bit her lower lip when there was no answer and shot a look over at Joe. He glanced toward her, knowing she was calling and had not gotten a response yet. Iola saw the fear in his deep eyes. She leaned over and put her hand on him to comfort him, but not throw off his driving. What her heart and touch said was louder and more helpful than words. It let him know she was there for him and understood.
Joe and Iola could see the increasing, billowing cloud of smoke and the scary, bright glow coming from the fire. There were quite a few buildings around where the explosion had happened, and they hoped it was in one that would have been empty at this time of the evening.
Joe kept telling himself that there wasn’t any proof yet that Frank had been in the blast. He felt sick just at the thought that his brother could have been. Joe had the bad feeling that it was the Riviera. As he tried to focus on his driving, his hands tightened on the wheel, attempting to stifle the shaking. Then they were turning onto the street the restaurant was on.
No. Joe felt cold. The grand restaurant had just come into view. Glowing flames licked mercilessly at the varying levels of the roof and down one side of the building. Iola stifled a gasp at the awful sight. The wail of sirens from fire engines, ambulances, and other emergency vehicles echoed in the night behind them, assuring those there that they were on their way to help.
Almost in a daze, Joe parked his car and jumped out in essentially one motion. His jaw clenched as he grabbed the fire extinguisher he had placed in his car at Frank’s suggestion.
With a quick glance at the faces of the few people standing, sitting, helping, or being helped nearby, and not seeing his brother, his heart feared more and more with every unsuccessful second. He sensed Iola by his side as together they searched for Frank.
On leave from the United States Marine Corps, Biff Hooper sat on the couch at his girlfriend’s parents’ house where they were about to watch a movie. Hearing yet another siren he thought, must be a really bad one. He knew Frank and Joe volunteered as firefighters sometimes, but he didn’t know whether they were on call right then or not.
He had arrived home in Bayport the previous day and had gotten to see them when the Pritos had invited everyone over for a get-together. It had been great catching up, especially kidding Frank after hearing about the auction. With food and friends, it had been a fun time.
As the sirens continued to alert everyone around that much needed to be done for future happy times, Biff prayed. He had no doubt there were people who had started out the evening with many thoughts on their minds other than being caught in a fire, but now surviving that had taken precedence over everything. Regardless of what their earlier concerns had been, just living and their family and friends living, that was the top priority.
He didn’t know the names of everyone there wherever the fire was, but he knew their lives were in serious peril, along with their hopes and dreams. That included all of those risking their lives to save lives.
Hoping for everyone to get safely through the fire, Biff knew to pray to the Creator of those lives.
One of Bayport’s finest, Lieutenant Con Riley, immediately began to assist the wounded individuals he encountered. He had seen how bad the fire was as he had approached and once he was there, he knew it was getting worse every second. Standing up from checking one victim, in his peripheral vision he recognized a couple hurrying by a short distance away, clearly searching for someone they cared very much about. “Joe! Iola!” he called. “Who are you looking for?”
“Frank!” Right after he said his brother’s name, Joe turned toward the restaurant and shouted, “MY BROTHER!”
“I know who he is.” Despite his matter-of-fact tone, Con felt a fear for the friends standing there and the friend likely trapped in the burning restaurant.
Iola’s eyes went from Joe to the roaring fire engulfing the high roof of the large, sprawling restaurant and she tried to keep hopeful. Frank could have already made it out of there. Couldn’t he? She called again on the phone. Still no answer. She could feel the heat from the outer reaches of the flames flowing toward them. Smoke drifted down and swirled around the fearful scene as a few more people staggered out of the restaurant. Her eyes drifted back over to Joe. And she wanted to cry. She knew how much Joe loved his brother. She loved Frank, too, a brother in addition to Chet. Frank has to still be alive.
Joe’s blue eyes were focused, intently searching for his brother while aware of what was going on around him. He could feel his girl’s hand on his arm. He could hear Con asking what sides of the restaurant they had checked so far and Iola answering. He could smell the choking smoke that taunted them in the fearful race against the clock. The loud blare of horns and sirens sounded on the streets of Bayport as the fire engines battled their way to the fire. It had only been a couple minutes since he and Iola had arrived. Everything seemed to go in slow motion one second, floating on the smoke filling the air. Then the next second seemed to speed up as quickly as the flames spreading at a terrifying rate. Frank was still in the restaurant, perhaps trapped. And Joe was determined to get him out of there. Frank has to still be alive.
Many prayers from many hearts were sent with even more certainty than the smoke curling upward into the lit-up night sky.
Fear would have increased had those there at the scene gotten a glimpse of two vehicles stopped to watch the huge fire that was destroying the restaurant and threatening other buildings nearby. So busy gawking, the thoughtless people were keeping the necessary equipment, to rescue victims and to contain and extinguish the fire, from getting there. One car and a bus, instead of getting out of the way, were blocking the road and stealing precious seconds that could make all of the difference in the world between life and death.
Endangering lives as surely as the fire itself.