One

 

THE SUN was starting to go down, but the heat from the day was lingering. The air wasn’t muggy or oppressive, and a breeze coming up from the ocean a mile or so away helped to keep Deuce from overheating as he rode his bike home. He’d be a lot happier after dark when his energy picked up. He was looking forward to going out for his evening walk with Q; walking the dog was a lot more fun than riding his bike in commuter traffic.

He turned onto a street a block from his apartment building and pedaled hard, working his way up an incline to his secret shortcut through an alley. He’d been doing this ride for months, and his body was showing it, finally. Deuce had been starting to wonder when his legs would show some definition, and then suddenly there it was. He was still working on his abs, but for the most part he was pleased with no longer looking like he sat at a desk all day.

In the alley he could go even faster, and he made a sport of zigzagging around objects while trying not to smell what they were. Sirens were drowning out the honking of horns behind him, and it took Deuce a moment or two to realize they weren’t screaming past, fading into the distance. He had no idea if they were police, fire, or ambulance, but whatever was going on had to be pretty big. Given the way the sound was echoing off the walls around him, he couldn’t tell where the commotion was, so he kept pedaling and hoped he wouldn’t shoot out into the middle of a bank robbery or something. As the thought occurred to him, he slowed down enough to come out of the alley onto his own street at a sedate pace.

“Jesus.” He braked hard and looked around, not even bothering to count the number of fire trucks. There were more than five, and that was all he needed to know. He spotted a couple of police cars too and an ambulance down at the far end of the street, past where his building was. Slowly, Deuce started to ride again, weaving through the gathering crowd and trying to see over the heads as he made his way home. He couldn’t make out what was going on, but given the ladder trucks and all the hoses out, he was willing to bet it wasn’t a car accident.

The crowd grew thick, and he had to ride up on the property across from his building to get around them but was stopped by cement steps protruding from the building. With a muttered curse, he got off the bike. “Excuse me,” he said, already moving between a woman clutching her shopping bag and a man standing with his hands shoved into his jeans pockets. “I said excuse me.”

The man reluctantly took half a step aside, and Deuce walked his bike ahead and then around a few other individuals. He knew people could be gawkers, but this was ridiculous. If they would just move, he could find a way around the trucks and into his own building, making one less person standing around and getting in the way. Besides, he needed to get to Q; she’d be going nuts with all the noise.

“Let me through, please,” he said again, and finally he broke through to the front line, right by the fire trucks. He started looking for a way to get to his apartment, but a big hand attached to a big cop stopped him.

“Sorry, sir. No one’s allowed past here. Let the fire department work.”

“I’m just trying to get out of the way,” Deuce said mildly. “One less person, you know. I live….” He trailed off, looking up. “Shit!” He dropped his bike and his mild manner at the same time, and the cop made a grab for him. “Let me go! Q! I need to get in there!”

Smoke was pouring out of windows, through doors, and Deuce’s vision narrowed until all he could see was his apartment. “Let me go!”

The cop was yelling at him, and then there were two holding on to him, demanding to know who was inside, what apartment. They wouldn’t let him go, and Deuce couldn’t make the words come out. He swore he could hear her barking. “Q! My dog. She’s locked in the bedroom. She’s pregnant!”

“What number?” He didn’t know who asked, didn’t care.

“Six. Second floor, on the right.” He made himself stop pulling at the cops, mostly because someone was going toward the building, someone in fire gear who could actually help, but also because the police weren’t going to be patient with him for very long.

“Stay here,” one of the cops, the second one, ordered. “You don’t move, understood? If you head to that building, I’ll put you in cuffs and throw you in a patrol car.”

Deuce nodded, not even looking at him. He was pretty sure the cop couldn’t do that, but he wasn’t about to find out. He just watched the apartment, his big front window that looked like it had maybe blown out or been smashed in. “Q,” he whispered. Then he made himself shut up and wait.

… and wait, and wait. It felt like a year had passed before he finally saw the firefighter emerge again, and by that time the building had become almost totally obscured by the thick, dirty smoke. Too many people were still in his way, and he couldn’t tell if the fireman had found his poor Q, her belly swollen with pups.

He craned his neck and stood on tiptoe, trying to peer past the police officer who was keeping him from dashing to his building. Had the firefighter gotten to her? And had it been in time? Deuce was just on the verge of saying fuck it and risking arrest, but suddenly the flock of people in front of him melted away and he confronted a pair of strong arms that cradled his pregnant dog.

“Q!” He reached out to take the squirming, panting mutt. “Is she okay? Are you?”

Q’s tongue lolled, and she whined and wiggled until he put her down. Holding on to her collar, Deuce crouched down next to her and looked up at the firefighter. “Thank you. God, I can’t even tell you.” He petted Q with one hand, made her sit, and held on tight. “Thank you,” he repeated.

The firefighter had already taken off his mask, and now he did the same to his helmet and wiped at his forehead. He nodded at Deuce and leaned down to give her a pat. “She’s a nice girl. Came right to me and let me pick her up.”

“She wasn’t real scared?” Deuce noticed his own hand was shaking, and he reached up to push it through his hair to make it stop. His knuckles hit his bike helmet, though, and he let out a shaky breath before undoing the snap and taking the helmet off. “I’m a mess. Thank you so much, again.”

“She was a little scared.” The man shrugged and petted Q’s head again, his gloves still on. “But not like some pets I’ve tried to grab. Got bit right through my turnouts once by some little yappy dog.”

“What’s your name?”

“Trey Donovan. And she is…?”

“Q. Well, her vet papers still say Cutie, but that’s a stupid name. I got her about two years ago, after a breakup, and took the liberty of cooling her up.” Deuce gently stroked her belly. “She got loose on me, though.”

The corner of Trey’s mouth lifted as he gazed at the dog’s stomach. “She wasn’t spayed, obviously. Don’t you listen to what Bob Barker tells you?”

Deuce didn’t blush, but he did nod contritely. “Lesson learned, for sure. It’ll be taken care of as soon as she’s ready. I’m not sure how long we have to wait after the puppies come, but the vet will tell me. I hope they’re okay.”

Q whined again and looked at them both, her tail thumping on the ground. She was still panting, and Deuce decided he’d have to find some water for her really soon.

Someone was yelling for Trey, who glanced over his shoulder and nodded. He gave one last pat to Q and shifted his helmet to under his other arm. “Good luck getting rid of the puppies.” He laughed. “My kid would love one.” Then he turned and headed back in the direction from which he’d come, presumably to do something else heroic.

“Your kid is totally getting one,” Deuce said, mostly to Q. “Right? Right.” He watched Trey talk to someone and then vanish into the smoke, but not before he saw the big “11” on Trey’s helmet. “We’ll track him down.”

He got up and held on to Q’s collar, stooping slightly as they walked. His bike was totally forgotten until a voice called his name, and he looked up to see the woman from across the hall waving at him.

“I’ll be right back,” he called back. “I need to find a bowl for Q.” And then he could start trying to figure out what the hell had happened to his apartment and how long it would be before he was allowed to go in for his stuff.