Gasping, he fell to the floor. The carpet had already burnt out and though it was agony to touch, the air down here was free of smoke and breathing was a little easier. Scrabbling forward, he made his way to the central staircase. The bedroom he shared with Karen was on the second floor – Alice’s bedroom right next to theirs. Somehow he had to get up there. Karen was in sole charge of the kids tonight and there was no way she would have gone out leaving Luke behind. They had to be in here somewhere.
His hands were blistering, his clothes starting to smoulder and fizz, but on he went. Eventually he collided with something hard and realized he was at the bottom of the stairs – or what remained of them. The basic shell of the staircase was intact but the whole thing was transformed – instead of a dull, polished brown, the boards now glowed a fierce orange, the burning wood spitting and crackling at him.
‘Karen?’ His voice was hoarse and weak. In spite of the intense heat that burnt his mouth and throat, he shouted again, louder this time.
‘Karen? Alice? Where are you?’
‘Please, love. Talk to me. Daddy’s her—’
He suddenly petered out, a deep, wretched anxiety paralysing him. He coughed again, more violently this time. Time was running out – he had to do something. Summoning his courage, he moved forward on to the first step. His foot went straight through it as if it were made of dust and he stumbled slightly. Righting himself quickly, he tried the next step up, but this collapsed too. Dear God, what was happening? Could this be real?
He scrambled at the third, fourth, fifth step, but could find no purchase.
His voice was limp now and drained of hope. He hung his head, overcome and exhausted, his mind starting to spin as the lack of oxygen took hold. As he stood there, not moving, a new smell filled his nostrils. It smelt like burning leather and looking down Thomas was surprised to see that his shoes were on fire. As were his trousers. And his jacket. He was now a walking flame.
Turning, he stumbled back towards the front door. He would never forgive himself for abandoning his wife and his baby girl, but he knew now that he would die if he stayed here a moment longer. He had to get out for Luke’s sake, if not his own.
Bursting from the front door, he collapsed upon the soft grass. Before he knew what was happening, he was turning over and over, dozens of hands rolling him on the grass to extinguish the flames. As he lay there, his head hanging upside down, he glimpsed the arriving fire engines and ambulances. The firefighters sprinted past him and moments later Thomas found a paramedic helping him to sit up.
‘My son,’ Thomas whispered. ‘Go to my son.’
The paramedic said something back, but Thomas couldn’t hear her. The whole world was strangely muted, though whether this was through injury or shock Thomas couldn’t tell. The paramedic was shining a torch into his eyes now, then his throat, assessing the extent of the damage. Thomas didn’t care what became of him – were it not for Luke, he’d have happily succumbed to death rather than face the prospect of losing his girls. But even so – even as he dismissed his own existence out of hand – he was still surprised by the sight that greeted him when the attending paramedic lifted his arm to take his pulse. His jacket had burnt clean off, his watch had disappeared and when the paramedic reached over to touch his horribly blistered wrist, the melting skin came away in her hands.
The axe connected sharply with the windowpane, sending shards of glass spiralling into the house. With the central stairwell all but destroyed, Fire Officer James Ward and his partner, Danny Brand, had opted for a first-floor entry, heading through one bedroom window, while their colleagues pumped gallons of water in through the other. Time was of the essence – the fire was on the point of going over, after which the house would be unsafe to access.
Brushing the glass aside, James stepped into the house. Immediately the charred boards beneath his feet groaned, threatening to give way. He hesitated, clinging to the window frame for support, before choosing a different route forward. This time the groan was less pronounced and he moved on swiftly but steadily, testing his path as he went. Danny waited for a while before following. This was standard practice – best to lose one officer rather than two, should the flooring give way.
The heat was savage, buffeting his protective suit. James could feel rivulets of sweat pouring down his body. He was uncomfortable and anxious, but he was calm. He had a job to do. It was highly unlikely that anyone had survived, but they had to look. If they were anywhere they would be on this floor, where the main bedrooms were located. James scanned the master bedroom, but there was no sign of the wife or the girl, so he moved forward. As he did so, his foot shot through the floor. Instinctively he grabbed at a light socket and managed to right himself, dragging himself up from the large hole that had opened up in front of him. He could see through now to the ground floor, a smoking mass of burnt furniture and fragmenting walls. Taking a breath, he leapt forward, clearing the hole and landing on the threshold of the landing. For a moment he teetered perilously on the edge, before he gained his balance once more and pressed on.
He moved into what looked like a child’s bedroom. The letters that had been stuck to the door – A-L-I-C-E – remained there, oddly unaffected by the fire destroying the rest of the house. James eased the door open to afford himself a proper view of the room beyond. A single bed, a few bits of furniture, a teddy bear on the floor – but no sign of Karen or Alice Simms. His first instinct was to move into the room to conduct a more detailed search, but something made him hesitate. There was a sound, a steady insistent sound, drawing his attention away from the bedroom to the bathroom nearby. It was hard to be sure, but it sounded like a kind of hissing. But not the hissing of burning furniture or a smouldering fire. This was different.
He moved towards the sound, one step at a time. Danny hung back once more, alive to the danger, so James gestured that he intended to check out the bathroom. Danny tapped his wrist, the customary signal that they would need to withdraw in a minute or two – with each passing second the strength of the internal fabric of the house was being degraded. James nodded – he knew that the clock was ticking.
Passing through the doorway, navigating by touch as much as by sight, he was surprised to see that the shower was on in the bathroom. No wonder there was so much smoke, the water vapour being consumed by the flames that raged all around. Dropping down to his hands and knees he crawled forward fast, a sudden thought gripping him.
And there they were, Karen Simms and her six-year-old daughter slumped at the bottom of the shower cubicle, the glass door shut to keep the fire out, the water cascading down on them to keep them from burning to death. James still didn’t hold out much hope – they had probably died of smoke inhalation some time ago. Both appeared to be face down in the shower stall, which didn’t bode well.
Reaching up, he located the handle of the shower door and pulled it open. A small cascade of water flooded out, creating another hissing burst of boiling steam. He moved closer to the bodies and was surprised to see that both their mouths seemed to be clamped to the shower drain. Suddenly he got it – they were taking in oxygen through the drainpipe.
Hauling Karen over, he looked into her eyes. She was unconscious, but where there was life, there was hope. Beckoning to Danny, he passed the heavy weight of the comatose woman to him. As he did so, the young girl stirred. No more than a small movement, but enough to send a shot of adrenalin through James. Perhaps there was a chance they would both survive.