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8th August
posted by amber

I’m heading to Calgary this weekend to enjoy the When Words Collide conference. I’ll be reading from my novel, Stolen Children, at the Edge Press event between 2 and 3, Saturday, Aug. 10, and also in the More Fantastic Readings after 3 p.m. Saturday. Saturday evening, 8 – 10 p.m. I’ll be signing copies. And on Sunday, Aug. 11, you can catch me at the panel on the Role of Beautiful Writing. It’ll be great to be in the company of writers and readers of science fiction and mysteries!

15th May
posted by amber

Dear readers – I’m including a long excerpt from my unpublished novel, Firekill.

I’m here in Sooke for a few days to work on Fire in the Hole, another mystery tale in the series. Turnstone Press is currently considering both novels, and I’m looking forward to providing them with more pages to see, if not a finished manuscript.

My mystery protagonist, Cameo, is a firefighter in the small city of Bliss, Alberta. In this excerpt, she is responding to a fire call.

The destination was the same place which had had the garage fire earlier.  This time the house was burning.

I heard Angus call in that he also was responding directly to the scene. “Ten Four,”  Bruce replied. “We’ll bring your gear down. You three will be first on scene. Cameo, I want you to secure the residents.” This is short-hand for ‘make sure everyone is outside and don’t let them go back in to rescue the cat or anything.’

“Angus, this is Fire One. I want you to do size-up and secure the hydrant.”

I saw no sign of Angus or his truck yet, nor did I hear him respond to Bruce’s next transmission.  “ There’s a report of trapped residents but you are not – I repeat, not – authorized to enter the building without protective gear.  We’re en route, should be there in a minute or two.” Not entering a building without protective gear or backup is SOP, but Angus has a reputation for freelancing so I knew why Bruce was so emphatic.

As I neared the place I could see it was as I recalled, the big garage near the street, the house tucked behind a ragged leafless hedge and a mangy yellow lawn littered with broken toys.  The charred remains of the grass clippings and the singed paint cans were still outside, but the guy must have put his hibachi back in the garage. Many people were milling around, the sallow-faced woman I’d seen the other night was now gripping a knot of crying kids and being held in turn by an older man I recognized as the neighbour who’d been the involuntary donor of the fire extinguisher.

An extinguisher, possibly the same one, lay near the front door but I could tell the fire was way too advanced to be stopped by anything but a major hose assault.  Hungry yellow flames were pouring out the front windows. Suddenly, Angus appeared beside me.  We were still three doors away from the fire scene. Gasping, he grabbed my shoulder and stopped me cold.  “The hydrant’s blocked!” he shouted.

I’d been prepared to be absolutely professional with him, with no shadow of our personal antagonism, but when I smelled the booze on his breath, I didn’t know how much professionalism I could expect from him. He must have run over from the Wrangler Bar.  We’re not supposed to respond if we’re drunk. No use pointing that out to him now. He staggered a little as he gripped me, obviously incapacitated.

“There’s a tow truck on the way,” I shouted back, trying to pull away from him so I could carry on toward the fire.  “Why don’t you go ahead with the size-up?” I thought it best if he stayed out of the public eye in his condition.  A quick circuit of the burning building to assess the progress of the fire and make note of any exposure risks might even sober him up a little.

“Don’t give me orders!” he yelled, so I did the only thing I could.  I ignored him and went about the job I’d been told to do.  I tore loose from his grasp and ran into the yard.  As I neared the woman, I was counting kids.  There were only three.  Hadn’t there been four the other night?  Where was the little boy who got to sit in the truck?  And where was her husband, the midnight griller? She was screaming, hysterical, her tear-washed eyes reflecting the blaze, streaks of wetness cutting across her soot-stained cheeks.  They must have gotten out just in time.

“Her boy started the fire,” the old guy told me, shouting above her shrieks and the roar of the fire.  “He’s still inside.  She sent him to his room and-”

I didn’t need the whole story just then.  “The husband?” I asked.

“At work.  He works over at-”

“Ma’am!  Ma’am!” I said loudly.  “The firemen will be here any minute, they’ll get your boy out.” I was tempted to play the hero but another look at the bright incandescent interior of the house convinced me that it would be suicidal.  In the city, I’d retrieved the bodies of two damn-fool would-be heroes, one civilian and the off-duty firefighter who went after him.  It taught me that they rarely do anyone any good, not the victims who perish anyhow, not their own bereaved families.  If I’d thought I had a ghost of a chance, I’d have been in there, but I didn’t.

“Is there a back door?” I asked the guy.  At least I could get all the information possible for the responding crew whose sirens I could now hear.  Angus, just catching up to me, was in no condition to do size-up.  He wiped his sweating face and gulped for air, shaking his head as if to clear it.

“The back door’s blocked,” the fellow replied, freeing one arm to point at a pile of firewood against the right side of the building.  “I told them-”

He seemed to assume I had time for lengthy conversation.  I cut him off once again to ask, “What room’s the boy in?”

He shook his head.  “All those kids share the back right bedroom.  You wouldn’t believe-”

The woman, who’d worked herself loose when the old guy was gesturing at the wood pile, broke free and dashed toward the house, wailing, “Johnny!  Johnny!”

“Grab her!” Angus yelled.

Good advice.  I ran a couple of steps and tackled her, knocking her to her knees and hugging her as tightly as I could.  A blur of small figures were also flying toward the fire, also shrieking, “Johnny!  Johnny!”  I caught one, a little girl maybe five, and enfolded her with her mother.  The neighbour got the other two, who looked like three-year-old twins, a boy and a girl. Then a larger shape zoomed by me.  I turned to see him silhouetted against the holocaust before he dove into the building.  Angus.

“Oh shit,” I said.

Paul arrived then and I thrust the woman and the little girl at him, shouting, “Hold them!”

I dashed around the building, hoping to discover at least one room uninvolved with fire.  The side and back yards were full of junked vehicles, mostly up on blocks.  The back room to the left, which had one window on the side of the house, still looked cool.  I continued around the house, frantically looking for something to use to break that window. The right bedroom, whose window was at the back, showed roiling smoke without flames inside. A hot room. A room ready to blow.  But it hadn’t flashed over yet. In the seething blackness, I thought I saw something.  A hand. I stepped nearer and got a brief glimpse of Angus, on his knees, reaching toward the window. Then he was pawing, weakly, against it.

“Move back!” I bawled as loudly as I could.  I picked up a rusty Tonka truck, hurled it against the glass. The window broke and immediately fire gushed out through the opening and then something flew through the flames, a small shape, the boy. Instinctively, I reached up and caught him in mid-air, then rolled his limp body on the patchy grass to put out the flames.

Someone tapped my shoulder, someone in full gear on the tip of a 65 mm hose, his partner advancing the hose behind him. “Angus is in there!” I screamed, pointing at the blazing room.

While I knelt over the child, assessing his condition, they foamed the room.  He was struggling to breathe but the hot air and gasses he’d inhaled were making his throat swell.  He needed to be tubed, and fast.  Luckily, Ken Litton and Thayer Syme arrived in the bus with their bag of tricks.  I turned Johnny over to them.  My major concern at that moment was Angus.  Somehow I’d lost my radio.  I ran back to the front of the building, found Bruce and yanked on his sleeve.  “Chief, Angus is inside!”

“I know,” he shouted over the wail of Pump 1’s sirens as it roared up the street.  “Terry and Marc are going in to get him out.”

“Rear right bedroom!”

“I know.”  His radio squawked, demanding his attention.  He handed my radio to me.  “You dropped this.  Now I want you to go sit down and calm down.”

“Sir, I’m calm.”  I took a deep breath to convince myself it was true.  “I want to go in.”

There must have been something in my voice because, shockingly, he said yes.  “Okay.  Get your gear on.  If Terry and Marc don’t find him, I’ll send you and Joe in.”

I could tell that he didn’t mean it, that he expected Terry and Marc to be successful.  And I realized he’d done the best thing possible to help me get my feelings under control, make it possible for me to be an asset rather than a liability at this fire.  I ran over to the truck, determined to set a new speed record for gearing up.  As I yanked the laces of my sneakers, snarling them in my haste, I realized I had to slow down.  Panic would cost me in time and in safety.

“Fire One, this is Search Crew.  We’ve cleared the right rear bedroom.  There’s no access to the left rear bedroom from this room, so we are now moving back into the front of the house,” I heard over my radio.

I was shrugging into my BA harness when Joe came over, fully geared.  Paul was with him and he quickly checked us both over before we trotted toward the house, smoothing our hat flaps over our collars to keep boiling water and hot ashes from falling down our necks, tightening our straps so they wouldn’t snag on anything in the dark smoky interior.

“Cam and Joe, this is Fire One.  Stand by at the rear of the building and wait for my command,” Bruce told us over the radio. As we headed toward the back of the building, I heard the bus pull away from the scene, siren wailing.  I presumed Johnny’s mother and siblings were on their way to the hospital too, as they and the helpful, chatty neighbour were nowhere to be seen.  I wondered how the boy was, but right now I was far more focussed on Angus, lost inside that gigantic raging bonfire.  He was a pig-headed, drunken idiot and I was furious over his stupidity, and overwhelmed by his heroism and his luck in rescuing the child.  He’d done what I should have done, what I might have been able to do without being caught inside the way he had, since I was sober, and stronger.

Joe and I stood in the back yard, leaning against one of the junker cars, waiting for Bruce’s command.  We were careful to stay out of the way of Oscar Cory and a volunteer who had a ladder and hose ready at the flashover room’s window in case the search team needed assistance.  I presumed we’d been sent to the back of the building to keep me away from the temptation of going through that front door unless Bruce wanted me to. Terry radioed in, “Fire One, this is Search Crew.  We encountered heavy fire in the front room but we’ve knocked it down.  Seems to be one big room, kitchen and living room combined.  We’ll search it now, then the back left bedroom.”

I could see that the bedroom which had flashed over was dark now, steaming and sizzling, but with no active flame.  The fire had moved to the roof, and to the wood pile and to the spruce trees next to the house whose branches brushed the roof.  I wondered where Angus had gotten to, why they hadn’t found him yet and how he could have moved around so much in that blazing hell. I heard Bruce put out an all-call, asking Hall Two to send the big ladder truck down here ASAP.

He had two 65’s trained on the roof, but they were holding back.  The weight of water on a burning roof would make it too dangerous for the firefighters inside.  I heard a snarl of chainsaws and saw two firefighters and a civilian taking trees down in a desperate attempt to keep the fire from spreading to other residences.  Someone was spraying foam to protect the house next door from the hail of sparks.  Through the missing slats of the fence I saw a cop pulling a grey-haired woman, probably the wife of the talkative neighbour, away from the house.  She was holding a squirming black cat in her arms and she seemed unwilling to leave.  In the street, a white cruiser with red and blue lights flashing was blocking sight-seeing traffic, trying to keep the street clear for the back-up Bruce had requested.

So much activity, so much for Bruce to keep on top of, but all I wanted to do was get into that building. “How long have Marc and Terry been inside?” I asked Joe.

“Less than three minutes.”

“Out!  Out!  Get them out!” someone screamed over the radio. I could see why.  The whole roof was sagging down to the right, where the stacked logs were burning with a merry crackle.

“Search Crew, retreat immediately!” Rob shouted over the radio and then Bruce came on air to calmly order Oscar and Rob to move to the front door to help pull on the hose, to bring Marc and Terry out as quickly and directly as possible.

“On our way,” came Terry’s voice, reassuringly cool.

People were yelling to the chainsaw wielders to run for safety.  Everyone seemed to have forgotten about Angus. “Come with me,” I said to Joe and led him around the left side of the house.  The back left bedroom was still empty of fire.  As far as I could tell, it was the only room that hadn’t been searched yet.

“Are you okay with a little freelancing?” I asked, donning my mask. Joe hooked up his air as well, nodding in an exaggerated way to make sure I understood his agreement.

I shoved my mask close to his and yelled, “Boost me into the window.” Joe knelt and let me climb him like a step-stool, one foot on his lowered knee, one foot on his shoulder.  Then I hauled myself through the window.

The ventilation team had cleared the shards of broken window from the frame.  Glass crunched under my feet when I landed.  The room was dark, full of lingering smoke and floating ashes kicked up by the slow collapse of the roof.  It didn’t feel too hot but I searched on my hands and knees anyhow, knowing that if Angus had somehow survived this, he’d have done it by staying low. I shone my flashlight back and forth, feeling around with my right arm and right leg, hugging the wall with my left.

The room had to be small.  I figured I could do it in a minute or less.  I rapidly searched one wall, two, three, four, the fifth.  The room had seemed square, so I didn’t know where the fifth wall came in, or why I hadn’t found the door. Bruce’s voice crackled from my radio, “Cameo, this is Fire One.  I want you out of there right away.”

I didn’t respond.  I’d found the door in the sixth wall, a hot door leading to the rest of the building, now reignited it seemed.  I’d gone back to the fifth wall, a cool wall that seemed to enclose a closet, but I couldn’t find the door.  A closet was a natural place to hide but why couldn’t I find the way in?

“Cameo, respond!”  Bruce barked, not sounding so calm any more.

“Just finishing up, sir,” I responded, aware that calling him ‘sir’ would not win me any points in this instance.

Patting the closet thoroughly, I finally found the latch, maybe six feet up.  I opened it, crawled half-way in and plunged forward into what felt like a hole. I was hung up, my mask pressed into dirt, my legs tangled up in the closet.  I couldn’t figure out what was going on.  This building, like most residences in Wash Flats, sat right on the packed gravel of the flood plain, it had no basement.  I’d looked, when I first arrived, for signs of a built-up foundation, saw none.

But it seemed to have a crawl space, maybe a foot and a half deep and that’s what I’d fallen into.  Unable to see, I reached out and grabbed wildly, found something to grip and pulled myself forward until my legs were free.  Wriggling onto my side, I got my flashlight in my upper hand, wiped the mud off my mask and took a look around.

The crawl space was a nightmare.  Veils of cobwebs studded with bug bodies festooned the beams, old bottles and cans were scattered everywhere, and there was even something that looked like the skeleton of a cat.  And something else.  Cartons and cartons of cigarettes.  If they went up, I thought nonsensically, someone was going to get a lot bigger nicotine buzz than they’d ever dreamed possible.  But they probably weren’t going to burn, since they were being soaked with filthy water dripping through the floorboards from above.  In the middle of all this I saw what I’d grabbed to lever myself free.  A leg.  Angus’s leg.  Attached to Angus.

I crawled over to him and shone my flashlight at him. His eyebrows were gone, his hair was curly and brittle-looking, singed, there were blisters coming up on his ears and his face glowed red , as if he was embarrassed or had been out in the sun all day, but he looked otherwise fine.  He was breathing.  He was actually snoring, the loud open-mouthed snore of a passed-out drunk.  I could hear him easily, even through the iron-lung sighing of  my mask. As I struggled to get a grip on Angus and try to pull him back up through the hole, I rolled on top of my flashlight and, in the darkness, noticed something not reassuring.  Water no longer came through the floorboards.  Instead a stabbing glow of active fire shone in bright slats on the littered ground.

I keyed my radio. “Fire One, this is Cameo. I’ve got him.  I’m under the house, in a crawl space, near the middle of the house, and there’s fire above me.  I’m going to try to drag him to just below the window where I went in.  Can someone cut me an exit?”

“Ten four,” someone replied, I couldn’t tell who, then Bruce’s voice sounded from my radio. “Cam, the whole house is going up.  We’re trying to stall it to give you some time but I suggest you haul your ass right out of there.”

I tugged on Angus.  He was a dead weight, not budging.  He seemed to be hung up on something.  I didn’t have time for this.  Giving a mighty heave, I pulled him free with a rip, leaving part of his shirt snagged on a plank. Water began to seep down from above once more.  Boiling hot water.

“Fire One, you’re steaming us here.”

“Okay, Cam, I’m telling you to abandon the casualty.  You are in imminent peril.  Get out of there.”

I tugged on Angus again, then shone my flashlight around, trying to see a way out. “Cam, this is Fire One.  Do you read me?”

Desperately trying to recall which way was which, I didn’t respond.  I’d crawled at least half way around that room, then went through the closet – facing in what direction?  There was no way to figure it out. I recalled a friend saying to me, “Cam, you have the best sense of direction of anyone I know.”  And it’s true, I never need a compass when I’m hiking, I can always find my car in a big parking lot.  Now it was time to discover how good it was.

I crawled in the direction that felt right.

If you think a foot and a half is a lot of clearance, I suggest you try wriggling around in it wearing an air bottle on your back and bulky bunker gear, dragging an unconscious heroic drunk.  I had to stay sideways otherwise my air bottle got hung up on the beams.  Propelling myself by digging my boots into the dirt and dragging myself forward on one elbow, I reached back and yanked Angus forward after every advance. It wasn’t until I beaned myself on a beam that I realized I’d lost my helmet somewhere along the line, probably when I fell through the closet.  As the floor groaned above me and a beam near my feet began to sag from the weight of burning material on top of it, this was not good news. I advanced, inch by inch, never able to gain much ground at each push without my shoulder coming up too high and wedging me against the next beam.

When I reached the pinch, I was praying my built-in compass hadn’t failed me.  The pinch was a gap in a huge log that had been laid under the floor beams, perhaps to add more support.  The gap was maybe two feet wide, not wide enough for me and Angus and my air bottle.  Also, there were water pipes running through it.  After hanging up on the metal pipes twice, I realized I had to roll over so I could do a belly crawl beneath them, scraping my air bottle tightly against the log as I wriggled through.  I barely made it.

Once my upper body was clear, I rolled over and fished back through the hole, trying to find Angus’s arm, but I must have kicked it out of the way in my struggles.  Flailing around with my legs, I finally connected with him.  I clenched him between my boots, one foot on his chest, one under his arm, and dragged him into the pinch just as all the beams on that side of the log let go with multiple tortured shrieks.  Fire fell into the crawl space.

On my side of the pinch, the floor had lifted.  I sat up, grabbed Angus by the shoulders and yanked him all the way through, then continued to crawl, now on my hands and knees, dragging him beside me, hurrying desperately in the direction that had to be right, otherwise we were doomed. The floor was smouldering above my head when I reached a dead end.  Another log, this one without any opening, blocked further progress.  I was in a corner with a stone wall to my left, the log in front of me and a big snarl of metal pipes to my right.

My flashlight and my radio were gone.  I felt very alone and absurdly grateful for Angus’s insensible company.  Tears fogged my mask, or maybe it was sweat.  The heat level had gone from uncomfortable to menacing.  My low air bell rang and although I knew I still had five minutes left, I briefly felt like taking the mask and bottle off, getting this over quickly.

But of course, I would  fight until the last minute.  Going back the way I’d come didn’t seem possible.  There was too much fire there and the floor had collapsed.  I realized there was only one way to go.  Up.

The floor had burned through, leaving a small hole that wasn’t big enough for me, but I hoped I could enlarge it, hoped that if I was able to escape the crawl space, I could move swiftly enough to get us both out of that burning room in time. I had enough clearance to brace my legs underneath myself, spread wide for greater stability.  I shielded my head and neck with my arms and pushed up against the floor with all my strength, my thigh muscles vibrating from the effort.  Just when I knew I couldn’t press any harder, my air bottle finally penetrated the burning boards with a splintering crash.

Instantly, I was sudsed with foam and swarmed with firefighters.  They tried to tug me away but I batted them off, reached down by my feet and yanked Angus up, pressed him into their waiting arms.

24th April
posted by amber

How I spent my winter – we had a quiet winter at the Black Cat Guest Ranch and I put in a lot of time working to turn the stories of my Story 365 Project into an ebook. My husband is helping with the formatting, and I’ll let you know when it is available. It’ll probably come out through Smashwords.

We kept a low profile over the last few months, as my husband was scheduled for a hip replacement, which he had in February. His recovery is going very well.

I’ll be traveling to Sooke, B.C. in May to work on completing a second mystery novel in the series I have begun. The first is called Firekill and the second is Fire in the Hole. Turnstone Press is considering both manuscripts at this time. Watch for daily posts from Sooke.

24th March
posted by amber

For those of you who are participating in today’s writing workshop, the first challenge is to write 2 – 3 paragraphs starting with the line, “In the apartment building across from theirs, six storeys above the ground, a cat walks along a balcony railing.”

Extra points if you can identify the original Canadian writer.

Post your story as a comment to this post.

20th March
posted by amber

I invite all Hinton and area writers to join me at the Black Cat Guest Ranch at 2:30 p.m. on March 24 for an afternoon of writing. We’ll focus on short fiction, character development and anything else which comes up. If you live further afield, check in at this site or my Facebook page to see the writing challenges. You’ll be able to send in your writing to share with the rest of the group.