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.She saw a firefighter, his features blocked by his helmet and its visor, walking away from the blaze and carrying an ax and a canvas bag.She almost dismissed him, until she considered his context: He had no hose in hand, wasn’t headed toward a lighting unit, a hydrant, or the fire, and didn’t seem attached to any squad or truck.“Check out the firefighter at my northeast corner,” she recommended.“I can’t figure out what he’s doing.”She did seconds later, when on another screen, she saw his outline at a back window, followed by the ax coming through the glass and a grenade-like, cylindrical object bouncing across the rug.“He’s thrown something into the house,” she called out.The subsequent explosion whited out the camera and shook the building.Sam ran to the door and threw it open to see a thick cloud boiling up the stairwell from the first floor.She worked to keep her voice calm as she reported, “Stairs are blocked.Can’t tell if it’s a smoke grenade or an incendiary.Anyone see that firefighter?”The exchange of replies almost jamming the line revealed only confusion.She did note with comfort, however, no reaction from Willy, who as usual had gone silent and was presumably hard at work.Backups and pre-plans were fine and necessary in these situations, but for Sam, there was no substitute for a Willy on the loose, her best interests foremost on his mind.She stepped back inside the room and closed the door as the smoke began lapping up and over the landing’s top edge.* * *Joe stopped partway down the street, listening to the chatter on the phone.He could see the crash site ahead, the staged fire trucks and ambulances, and—as it happened—the bright flash of the explosion inside Sam’s supposed safe house, followed by smoke oozing out of its lower windows.And, of course, the people.They were running, gawking, talking on radios, taking pictures, hauling fire equipment—firefighters, police officers, EMTs, and civilians.He even saw the driver of the red Focus being questioned by Colchester cops.The possible goals of this chaos were simple enough: either to assault a legitimate safe house in order to grab Rachel Reiling, or throw a staged police trap into turmoil for the pure hell of it.With the latest addition of the bomb, Joe was seriously doubting the first.Whoever his opponents were, they had not fallen for the trap.This mess was their way of stating that.There was pride at play here, and flagrant braggadocio.And there was intention: to reverse the police plan, flush the cops out of hiding, and force them to save one of their own.It was this aspect of the situation that drew most of Joe’s focus.He began watching for people dressed for the weather, acting with purpose, but perhaps not to any constructive end.Sammie’s identification of an ax-wielding firefighter wandering on his own was an example.Joe therefore forced himself not to think of her—she was being helped by others, after all—and to determine instead the exit strategy of his enemies.If any of this reversal was to be of benefit to them, now was the time for at least somebody to step back and take note overall.Which is why he noticed a car with its lights out—beyond the scattering of trucks and their tangle of fire hose—leaving the curb at the far end of the block and slowly retreating toward the scene’s rear exit.Joe threw his own car into reverse, to head the other way.* * *Upstairs, Sammie was running the shower in the adjacent bathroom, soaking towels and herself in preparation for a worst-case scenario.She also ran to the room’s door and laid a long, drenched towel at its base, where smoke was beginning to trickle in.The air was as hot as a sauna’s.“Sam,” she heard Tom Wilson update her.“The bomb was an incendiary.The fire department is working to get it out and extract you, but it’s stubborn and the fire’s right under you.They can’t get ladders in place till they knock that part down.How’re you doing?”She was standing at the door of the bathroom when its window smashed open, accompanied by a blast of cold air and the face of Willy Kunkle.“Hey, babe.How’re ya doin’?”She burst out laughing.“What the hell?”“I stole one of their ladders,” he half explained.“Wanna get outta here?”* * *One street over, Joe killed his lights and drifted to the curb.Far ahead, a man in a fire coat, minus his helmet and ax, stepped out from between two homes, a block away from the action, to be met by the dark car Joe had seen quietly slipping away.As the car then gathered speed and turned on its headlights, heading in Joe’s direction, he once more flopped onto the passenger seat, resting his cheek against the warm pizza box, and let it pass by.Then he pulled into the road, executed a quiet U-turn, and followed from a distance.CHAPTER NINETEENIt was long past midnight, and the storm had finally arrived.Vermont’s largest city was looking like an empty Christmas pageant soundstage, where someone had forgotten to switch off the artificial snow machine.Joe topped the hill with his headlights out, hoping to preserve his relative invisibility, and headed into downtown and toward the mesmerizing black hole of Lake Champlain beyond.It was a neat trick, however, driving in the dark, barely keeping the car ahead in view, and relying solely on passing streetlamps to guide him.The heavy snow made every overhead bulb appear like an isolated, smudgy beacon, shrouded as if by fog and barely extending to the roadway.In the end, Joe’s ambitions proved unrealistic.Despite his best efforts, circumstances overwhelmed him [ Pobierz całość w formacie PDF ]