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Ring Around the Rosie
by Julie Coulter Bellon
“Sarah?” he croaked. He tried again. “Sarah?” His legs felt like lead and the urge to just lie back was stronger than ever. No. Keep moving. “Claire?” He coughed and tried to catch a breath, but couldn’t get the oxygen to his lungs. With a shallow intake of air, he turned over on his stomach and used his arms to raise himself to a sitting position. The inside of the diner looked like a destructive madman had rearranged it. The booths were toppled or stacked on top of each other. The hostess station was next to him now. The only thing that was still standing where it had before the blast was the four walls, the ceiling, and the antique counter. “Sarah,” he called again. “Bart? Colby?” The little girl. Was she still in the back with her mother?
No one answered. Where is everyone? He crawled forward. Sarah had been nearly right beside him. Now there was no sign of her. He rubbed his eyes and coughed. Moving slowly, he prayed she was alive. It didn’t take long to find her sandwiched between an overturned booth bench and the podium for the hostess station. With some effort he managed to maneuver close to her, the adrenaline kicking in as his blood pounded through his system. Don’t let her be dead. Not like this.
“I’m here,” she said, looking up at him in a daze. From what he could see she had a cut on her head, her cheek was already turning red with a large bruise and she was curled up, not moving around a lot. But she was alive.
“Are you hurting? Broken bones?” He bent over, trying to hear her over the alarms going off inside the restaurant and from several cars in the front parking lot. At least he hoped that’s what the ring was and that he hadn’t lost his hearing.
“I don’t think so. My face . . .” She lifted a hand to her cheek and winced. “What happened?”
“I’m not sure.” Black smoke curled around them now, making it difficult to see much of anything. “Claire? Colby? Bart?” He coughed and tried to wipe his watering eyes. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
“Captain, you all right?” Claire called out from somewhere behind him.
“I’m okay. Can you see Colby or Bart?” He squinted, his professional instincts kicking in to assess the possibility of going out the front door. The glass in all the windows and door was shattered and a hole gaped in the wall, letting in oxygen to feed the hungry fire that was now headed toward the ceiling. That kind of damage could have meant a gas line explosion or other accident, but the burning car visible in the front section of the parking lot told him different.
But who would car bomb a diner?
His head was still fuzzy, but even in his condition, he knew he didn’t want to move Sarah in case she had spinal injuries. She, however, had other ideas and started to sit up. “Wait for the paramedics,” he cautioned her, holding up a hand. “They should be here any minute.”
“Don’t tell me what to do,” she said, obviously irked at his advice. She gingerly leaned on the overturned hostess station as she pulled herself upright.
Ron resisted the urge to roll his eyes, turning to the people who would accept his command of the situation. “Claire, let’s go out the back to avoid the fire,” he shouted. “Colby, Bart, you with us?”
“Bart’s down, sir,” Colby called out. “We need an ambulance.”
“I called 911,” Eli said in his booming voice, coming out of the kitchen with a fire extinguisher. He waded through the debris like it was fall leaves under his feet, heading for the flames. Safety sprinklers kicked on overhead and had a good start on putting the fire out, but they also made everything an even bigger mess by plastering wet soot and debris to any flat surface.
The alarms were still screeching and combined with the hiss of the fire it was nearly impossible to speak and be heard. Or maybe it was because Ron’s ears were still ringing from the blast and smack on the head. He opened his jaw, trying to relieve some of the pressure in his ears, and his hearing did seem to get stronger with his efforts. The squeal of the alarms got louder anyway. But then he heard a pop reverberate through the air. A sound that he knew well in his profession.
“Get down, Eli!” Ron shouted. He drew his 9mm from his ankle holster and found cover behind an overturned booth. The smoke was choking him, obscuring the way out, but they had to leave. Now. “Colby, we’ve got a shooter. We need to get everyone out, but stay down!”
Eli came out of the smoke like an apparition. He staggered toward Ron and clutched his chest, his mouth opening and closing, but no words coming out. Is he having a heart attack? Realization dawned as soon as he saw the red stain forming in a grotesque sort of circle on Eli’s white apron. He started to topple, so Ron pushed forward and tried to grab him. Juggling the large man’s weight was overwhelming, but he got him to the floor. He could hear the diner owner’s groans and knew he didn’t have long before he bled out.
Ron crouched over Eli, trying to get his bearings. Get help in here. He had to move, get clear. But before he could even draw another breath, a man dressed in full combat gear stood over him, an assault rifle aimed at his heart.
“Hello, Ron,” the man shouted, as four other men dressed identically gathered around the perimeter of the room. “I’ve been waiting for this moment.” He crouched down to Ron’s eye level, but Ron couldn’t get a clear view of his face in all the smoke. “What do you think? Did I get your attention?”
That voice. Where had he heard that voice before? Ron stared down the barrel of the rifle, then back up at his captor. “Yeah, I’d say you got my attention.” Now what?
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