created by john shannon



No Human Being is Exempt from Panic

      The sliding door of Firehawk-15 walloped open and they were both yanked outward by a gasp of the fire below.  The Sheepshead fire was crowning up into the canopy of ponderosa pines only a few hundred feet beneath their helicopter.  Despite all his experience, Tony Piscatelli was shocked that the chopper had filled instantly with superheat and the smell of woodsmoke.  The firefront in the San Bernardino Mountains east of Pasadena looked a terrifying mile wide as it advanced along the slope. 

     They'd been told that there were fifty inexperienced volunteers down there, men from the minimum-security Wayside Honor Rancho jail.  The prisoners had mainly been chopping brush for firebreaks on the safe flanks of the fire, but the blaze had unexpectedly turned south and then back over a ridge into unburned fuel, threatening to trap the amateur groundpounders. 

     The two Forest Service smokejumpers took hold of each other's shoulders in the doorway and waited clean-and-tight for the jump to find the civvies and lead them to safety over Trophy Saddle.  They had their go-go from Chopper-10, the little control firechopper above them. 

     Their bigger Sikorsky, on loan from L.A. County Fire, hammered into the turbulence and then orbited a burned-over safety zone.  The firefighters tested their harnesses and made their final preparations to fast-rope down.  A gigantic column of smoke billowed off the firefront with a red glow pulsing within the black.  

     "Hook up," Piscatelli shouted over the firestorm, slapping his jumpmate's shoulder.  His stomach clenched up in nausea, as always. 

     "Hooked," Jerry Routt shouted back.  They both tugged on the Sky Genie rig to make sure all was tight.  They'd been Fire Service hotshots for 15 and 10 years, trained at first to work in disciplined groups of twenty men, but now the equation had been reversed.  They were the elite of the elite, pulled aside to be smokejumpers because they'd shown they had initiative and daring.    

     Piscatelli tossed out a drift streamer to judge the air currents from the blue smoke flare.  The firestorm yanked the streamer toward the burn column, and it tumbled end over end as it fell at an angle.  Piscatelli touched his throat mike for the pilot.  "Get us farther south, away from the firefront, man.  Take us to one hundred, but find another LZ.  You'll find a burnover at eight o'clock.  Send the burger meat later."

     Lightning shot blindingly out of the smoke column, and thunder followed like ripping canvas, trailing off into a growl. 

     "The LZ!  See it?" Piscatelli shouted to the pilot. 

     "Negatory," the pilot called.  "Wait!  Fer sure.  Three hundred and descending.  This place is total crazy winds, my doomed heroes.  I'm having trouble holding it.  Jump with God."

     "Hold that thought!" Piscatelli shouted.  He felt his gut tighten.

     "I gotta piss so bad," Routt said, but then laughed.  

     "Ready to go." 

     "Ready, Teddy."

     "One hundred feet, pals," the pilot shouted.


     They hurled their half-inch nylon lines out into the ripping cross winds.  Their body weight would take the ropes pretty much straight down. 

     "Three rope turns!"

     "Three turns!"

     They leaned into one another and Piscatelli gave his old reliable friend a shoulder-pound.  


     They rappelled out of the chopper together and horizons whirled and heaved as they did a controlled slide down toward the blackened LZ.  




     Jack Liffey heard the thumping of Gloria's cane upstairs, louder than absolutely necessary, a bit of a statement.  It tracked approximately from bed to bathroom, a pause, back into the bedroom, then whacked the floor a couple of times in mute rage, and abruptly clattered across the room, hurled.  


     Jack Liffey wanted to take her up a cold beer, but the doctor had insisted she cut back on the self-medication, and he tried to think of something else that might cheer her up.  But with three broken ribs, a rebuilt hip joint, two internal organs taken out--a kidney and a ruptured spleen--and six months forced leave from her job at the LAPD, not much could qualify as cheer.  Not to mention the psychological afterburn of her bitter ordeal in Bakersfield, which had included sustained beatings and rape.  She still wouldn't tell him word one about it, but he knew a lot of it indirectly. 

     He headed up the stairs, noisily enough to alert her that he was on the way.  She was facing away from him on the bed, wearing only a skimpy peignoir, or whatever the hell it was called.  He was tempted to caress her, but she hadn't let him touch her in the six weeks she'd been back. 

     "I'm here," he said.

     "Why?  Why would you want to be anywhere near me."

     No jokes, he told himself.  "Because I care, and you could use some caring."  God, what an idiot I sound, he thought.  Hold tight.  She's going to give you a blast, but she needs you to stay calm as ice. 

     "You must be insane, Jack.  Who could care about a worthless mess?"

     "You're one of the worthiest human beings I know.  Can I get you something?"

     "Like what?  A plastic bowling trophy?"

     "It's up to you, Sweet."

     "I am not sweet, and why is it up to me?  Why is it always up to me?  Can't you ever get your fucking mind around what you need?"

     "I guess I need to look into that."  Hold on, hold on--he braced himself against her big metaphorical thumb that was pressing against the metaphorical bruise he carried around, probably from so many previous failures.  She had an unerring instinct for taking advantage of advantage.  A sharp cop. 

     Wounded dark eyes came around to him, and he tried desperately to appear kindly and patient, and then she burst into a fit of weeping.  He rested his hand on her shoulder softly.  She let him.  After she collapsed onto the bed, she let him hold her, spooning her.  But not for long.

     "Go away now, Jack.  I don't want to turn you permanently against me."

     "There's no chance of that."

     "Stop it.  Go away."

     "I'm right downstairs."  Just hurl your cane again. 

     He headed down the creaky staircase in the old frame house in East L.A.  He wished he could kill the two malicious dim-witted cops who'd abused her, but, in fact, she already had.  They'd wanted payback for showing them up in their own town, doing their ostensible jobs like any real pro would, and probably costing them their last chance for promotion.     

     Downstairs he could hear the inconsolable sobbing, so unlike her iron strength that it broke his heart.  He turned on the TV to drown out the sound.  Dinner was still two hours away, nothing else to do.  A chastened and worried Loco tottered in to visit, sensitive to the aura of grief that permeated the house.  The dog avoided Gloria now.  It was a half-coyote with its own problems, in remission from bone cancer after surgery and chemotherapy--procedures that Jack Liffey hadn't yet found a way to pay off.  The dog had been altered by its ordeal, more affectionate now, at least when he felt like it, his eyes losing some of their wild yellow opaqueness.  He settled heavily on Jack Liffey's feet.  

     An image finally coalesced after the old TV's slow warm-up.  Smoky and disoriented shots of a mountain wildfire from a news helicopter. 

     ". . . More than a hundred thousand acres have been burned as of two o'clock, but only two structures have been destroyed and no lives lost.  Tom, can you hear me?  Tom?  I'm sorry, we're having trouble with voice contact with Chopper-Eleven.  More than a thousand firefighters are battling the Sheepshead Fire now, including personnel from the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and county and city fire departments.  And fifty volunteers from the Wayside Honor Rancho who are threatened by the fire's detour over San Dimas Pass."

     The young square-jawed announcer appeared harassed, at loose ends, pushing around papers in front of him as unobtrusively as he could.    

     "The National Weather Service says smoke from the fire has already spread across Nevada and Utah.  California has only received about one-third as much moisture as normal this year, and average temperatures have been almost ten degrees above normal."  

     "Patrick . . . am I on?"

     "Tom, are you with us?  I think Tom is back.  Any word on the rescue team?"

     "Nothing here.  We're heading for Beaver Flat where the volunteers are reported to be headed.  Their two buses were incinerated on the fire road about half an hour ago, but expert smokejumpers are dropping to their rescue.  You can go to the fire command center in Riverside for direct information."

     Jack Liffey dialed down the sound, and when he realized Gloria had stopped weeeping, he muted it completely.  Forest fires didn't grab his attention that much, like police chases on TV.  They were just part of the ecology of disaster in Southern California, earthquakes, mudslides and shooting-sprees.  TV always showed the same images, the same details, the same ironies and tragedies. 

     All as meaningless as a bad toss of the dice.  Unless, of course, the fire ever threatened his daughter Maeve, who was living in a fire zone far to the west in Topanga. 




     It had been a difficult hour for Maeve Liffey.  Bunny had finally agreed to undress and pose for her on the broke-down sofa, and between quick sketch lines and brush strokes, Maeve had been sorely tempted to fly across the room and cover her ample body with kisses.  But somehow she'd kept to professional conduct so as not to upset the complex relationship among the four UCLA coeds who lived in the rambling rented house in Topanga canyon not far above Malibu.

     "Thanks so much, Bunny."

     "You need a better space heater.  Jesus, Maeve.  Are you sure you can survive out here?"

     "I'm okay.  I'll look into a better heater if you'll pose some more." 

     Bunny didn’t commit.  She wrapped her bathrobe tight around herself and trotted back the fifty feet to the main house.  A few weeks earlier Maeve had moved out to the old garage, cleared out a generation of trash and turned it into her studio and bedroom, freeing her room in the main house for a fourth student to cut down their rent.  There was no kitchen or bathroom out here, but she shared the ones in the house and she could use the extra space for painting, an obsession that had taken her over not long after starting her first classes at UCLA.  She'd had no idea that she had any artistic talent at all, but even with her tendency to self-doubt, she could see how good her work was rapidly getting.  On the canvas, the dynamics of Bunny's body were right there to see.  The possibility of a sudden nudge or shift, an eruption of movement--even a good cuddle.

     Her ringtone cried out the hook from Melissa Etheridge's "I Want to Come Over."  She had only the cell like everyone else in her generation.  The day of the landline was just about over. 

     "Hi, kid."

     "Hello," Maeve said to the strange greeting.  It was a woman, but an odd voice, brash and foreign-accented, Asian maybe. 

     "This Maeve Liffey?  Daughter of Jack?"

     "That's me."  Already she was suspicious.  Who would be calling her dad on her number?

     "Hey, Tien Joubert here.  You remember me from many years, girl?  My English still crap, but it don't mean I'm stupid, I been to Sorbonne.  Speak five language.  I run whopping big import business now.  Your dad miss a good thing."

     Maeve knew who she was now.  The woman had hired her father ten years earlier to find a missing girl in Orange County, but she'd also relentlessly seduced him at a vulnerable time in his life and helped destroy his relationship with a previous live-in.  Maeve's protective instincts toward Gloria rose automatically.

     "I remember you.  You grabbed onto my dad at a bad time."

     "I worth hundred million bucks, girl.  I don't need no broke-down roundeye man.  I got plenty men knocking day and night.  I need help to find girl, and Jack's phone number no good.  Somebody at the number say go chase my tail."

     Maeve guessed she meant the phone number from his old condo in Culver City that he hadn't used for probably eight years.  She debated saying, Go chase your tail, but she knew her father was desperate for business as always.  Finding missing children had been his specialty since the aerospace business collapsed and no one needed technical writers any more.  He always said it paid better than delivering pizzas, just.  "Give me your number and I'll have him call you."  It was as far as she was willing to go, and she might let that promise lapse, too, after careful consideration of the particular broke-down roundeye man in question.

     The woman gave her a number, in the 714 Orange County area code. 

     "This missing girl isn't you, is it?" Maeve asked.

     The woman laughed with a self-assured abandon that gave Maeve just a hint of what had attracted her father.




     Routt struggled to control the animal terror--his inner lizard brain still had an instinctual fear of fire.  Orange flame billowed over the ridge to the right.  The roar was almost deafening, but the head of the fire was temporarily halted along the ridgeline while it sent its scouts spilling south to outflank them.  It was hard sometimes not to read a cunning and malevolent will into a fire.    

     At that moment Routt stumbled, astonishing him.  He never stumbled, never.  He still held the California high school record in the 180 low hurdles, 18.8. 

     He glanced down and froze in horror.  What had tripped him was a girl's body just into the wash.  An obvious gunshot wound to the forehead.  Recent.  She was small and young and Asian.

     "Tony!  Over here!  Before it's too late."

     "Jer, go-go!"

     "No kidding!  Gotta see this!"   

     Reluctantly, Piscatelli took a few steps back.  He reacted to the body, but he was too disciplined to take the time to talk it over.  "Okay, she's gone.  Let's get out of here."

     "This is a murder."
     "We know where she is.  Let's get to a safe zone."

     Routt saw that her right hand was clasped and he reached down and plucked a necklace from her stiff fingers, tucked it quickly into his pocket. 

     "J.R., now!"

     Buds of fire bloomed over the ridge, blinding holes in the world too bright to look at.  The whole ridgeline then spilled fire at once.   

     "Situation!" Piscatelli shouted. 

     Routt felt the gusts of almost overpowering wind sweeping toward the fire and knew the beast was declaring itself a firestorm.  How hot did they get?  He tried to recall.  Maybe 1,600 degrees.  Hot enough to ignite asphalt roads.  He sighted a gravel wash to the left.

     "Left," Routt shouted.  It was below the trail by thirty feet, good for a possible flameover, though bad for chimney effect from below.  But you only had what you had.

     "Drop packs!" Piscatelli shouted over the roar. 

     Oh, man, that was it.  Piscateli was no pussy.  Routt took a millisecond glance to see clawing fists of fire coming straight for them.  Their hundred-pound packs contained backfire torches and fusees and would be deadly in a flameover.  Drop, indeed.  Routt spun and hurled his pack far away.  They wouldn't even be able to get to the safe zone. 

     "Shake and bake!  Now!" 

     He heard Piscatelli go on his radio, asking for an emergency bucket drop right on top of them. 

     Routt ran hard the extra yards to the wash and yanked the shelter packet out of his stomach pouch and tugged the red rings to pop it open.  It unfolded, agonizingly slowly, and he flipped the head of the foil shelter away from the fire.  Migod, the flame was in a personal rage at him.  Growling.  He'd never seen anything like it.  He yelled, "Gone shelter!" to Piscatelli as he clambered inside the low foil sandwich of a tent and once on his belly inside he folded out the floor panels under him.  He'd never been quite this frightened, and it took him down a peg in his own estimation.  But training stayed with him like instinct.  He slipped his forearms inside the hold-downs and bucked his butt around to thrust the sides of the shelter away from his body.  Give me air space.  Head low, breathe low.  Don't panic.  It's always better inside.

     Go away, fire, Routt begged.  Okay, I'm not the kingfish.  I'll make a bargain with you, Whoever.  Don't tell on me and you can scorch me just a little.   

     "Pisky, how you doing!  Pisky!  Talk to me!" Routt bellowed.

     The world was a freight train passing right over him.  Then a tornado of wind whipped and punched at his shelter.  Pinpoints of light glowed through the foil, even a few burning hairlines along the folds.  The heat was becoming unbearable, and he fought the urge to burst out of the shelter and run.

     "Piss-s-s-sky!  Talk!  I ain't so good!"

     No reply.  Shit shit, Routt thought.  This wasn't supposed to happen.  "Pisky!"  Training said to keep talking.  Fight the sense of being alone. 




     It was ostensibly a hunting lodge in northwest Indiana, at the center of thousands of wild prairie acres, but the Reik brothers used it mainly as a remote Camp David for conferences with opinion-makers, now and future.  Later in the week it would be a private meeting with several Californians and one of their think tanks, ACP, the American Council for Prosperity.   

     For now, the brothers were alone with their mint juleps on the open verandah that overlooked the small lake and range-land that the elder btother, Gustav, called the Kill Zone.  The inner room behind them was lined with weaponry to play with. 

     "Andor," Gustav mused.  "What was the happiest moment of your life?  Your adult life, I mean.  Forgetting the days of dad."

     Their father Maximillian Reik had been an abusive tyrant of the first water and had beaten their mother mercilessly as a kind of punctuation mark whenever he'd bested someone in a business deal.  A first-generation immigrant from Central Europe, he had made the beginning Reik fortune by marketing oil-rig drill bits in west Texas in the 1930s.  The sons had expanded the fortune a thousand-fold in the 1980s, first with refineries and pipelines and then by latching the Reik empire to the new technology of hydraulic fracturing--fracking--shooting superheated toxic chemicals at high pressure into the earth to break up layers of shale and quadruple the output of an oil or gas field.  Halliburton and Schlumberger were bigger names in the game than Reik Industries, but not by much.

     "Oh, yes, let's forget daddy.  The happiest moment of my life, huh?  Maybe I haven't had it yet.  Nobody's assassinated that Nigger president."

     Gustav sighed.  The middle-aged brothers agreed substantially on all things political, but Andor just couldn't stay civil about it.  Gustav was on opera and ballet boards in Manhattan and knew how to moderate his speech.  "Has the Californian arrived?"

     "You mean the giant garden gnome or the Jewboy?"

     "He's not a Jewboy, Ad.  Seth is a good Protestant name.  He's keeping his little tea kettle brewing for us."

     "Fuck California," Andor said.  "It's just homos and Volvos." 





     Jack Liffey flipped around the channels, but the only stations not on some version of the Sheepshead Fire were Judge Somebody and an infomercial.  He flipped past a poker game featuring several solemn-looking teens in hoodies.  Did people actually watch poker on TV?  What was next?  Watching haircuts?  

     He flipped back to the fire--at least disasters were one of the few events ever broadcast live, like barricaded suspects and football games.  The big San Gabriel Mountains fire seemed to be turning back on all the newsmen and firefighters and setting off a general panic of panel trucks and fire engines reversing down fire roads and men in yellow coats dashing madly down canyons.  

     Jack Liffey could certainly empathize after his own experiences of panic: a brushfire he'd been caught in, a monster mudslide, and being thrown down an L.A. storm drain in a flash flood.  Panic was just panic.  Nobody was immune.

     He turned the TV off just as the phone rang.




     Maeve Liffey sat at the desk with her laptop, rarely used now because ordinary course work had fallen away in the face of her tropical fever for painting. 

     She had a simple choice--phone her dad about Tien Joubert or not.  Back then he'd had a problem keeping his pants zipped, with some pretty bad consequences.  But since then she'd had her own unruly sex life--a consuming passion for a Latino gangbanger that had left her pregnant, then a much-pondered abortion, and then an overwhelming infatuation with a rich and intellectual girlfriend.  Now she felt she was pulling inward to let her psyche recover.  She was powerfully drawn to Bunny, but could put that off.

     It was Gloria she worried about, her dad's live-in who was going through her own ordeal that neither of these hermetically isolated adults would talk about.  Maeve had guessed that sex was off the table for Gloria right now, and her dad might just be vulnerable.

     Tien Joubert had insisted she had all the suitors she needed.  What to do?  After a moment she picked up her iPhone and tapped an icon.   

     The icon was a picture of her Dad. 




     Jack Liffey floundered and dug and then found the ringing handset at last under some tossed newspapers and he pushed the green button.  Green is go, red is stop: it was about all he knew of even old-generation wireless phones.  The speed dial was beyond him, as was everything to do with computers.  "Bueno," he said.  It made sense where he lived, but it often got him into trouble having to deal with a flood of idiomatic Spanish coming back at him.

     "Give it up, dad.  You can barely handle 'Grass-ee-ass'."

     "The creaky old brain still has to try.  To what do I owe the honor of a phone call from a young adult who's already detached herself from the father ship and is making its solo descent to the lunar surface?"

     "Cut it out, dad.  I'll always be joined to you by a huge cable.  I love my befuddled daddy to distraction."

     He closed his eyes, almost on the edge of weeping at the abrupt affection.  Gloria's maddened state has got to me, he thought.  "Thanks, hon.  I'll always be here for you."

     "I know that.  Tell me who rescued you from the riots in South L.A.?  I'll save you the trouble.  I did, age 14.  Do you need saving right now?"

     "I'm fine.  How are you doing at that huge campus?  A place like UCLA can be pretty intimidating." 

     "I think I'm finding myself."

     "You mean painting.  That's great, I mean it.  But you're still putting time into coursework, too, I hope.  You have a tendency to focus down like a laser."

     He heard the pause. 

     "I'm fine.  Let's face it, dad, there's always a little freshman slump, trying to adjust."

     "It was sophomore slump in my day.  Don't think I can't come over there and tan your ass if you're slacking off."

     She laughed.  "Dad, you never tanned my ass in my life.  And these days it would be considered--well, never mind.  My ass better remain my own business.  Listen, tell me about Gloria.  Is she up and around?"

     "She's ambulatory.  With a cane, but stairs are still beyond her."
     As if overhearing the phone conversation, Gloria started bellowing in frustration, and he heard the cane pound hard across the floor and then thwack into the wall. 

     "Is she talking about it yet?" Maeve asked innocently. 

     Gloria went on cursing and drumming her feet for a while, but she didn't call out his name.  That had become the final urgent signal. 

     "No," he said.  Maeve had meant, Was Gloria talking to anyone about her Bakersfield ordeal.                

     "You don't know what it's all about yet?"

     "You'll have to ask her, hon.  I know it was pretty bad."

     "This is hard on you, too, isn't it?" 

     "She's in a bad way, hon.  When you know people are really needy, it's a lot easier to help them."

     "Not everybody feels that way, Mr. Buddha.  My generation doesn't use the word duty very much."

     Out in front of the house, a motorcycle ratcheted noisily past and someone shouted. 

     "Listen, dad, I actually called you about something."

     A chill went down his spine.  Another pregnancy?  She'd stopped a random bullet?  She was dropping out of college?  "Go on."

     "Do you remember that Vietnamese woman Tien Joubert?"

     Is a bear Catholic, he thought, does the Pope shit in the woods?  The woman had turned his life upside down a decade back.  "Yeah, hon, I do.  I'm not into dementia yet.  What's this about?"  He could feel the reserve enter his voice, as if Maeve were about to suggest a special offer on term life insurance. 

     She told him about Tien's call and gave him the number.  "Please tell Gloria I love her very much." 

     Funny the subject should boomerang right back to Gloria, but there it was.  He knew exactly what Maeve meant: Keep your pants zipped this time. 


Copyright © John Shannon 2015. All rights reserved.