<p><b><center><b><i>1</i></b></center></b></p><br><p><b><center><i>Thursday, November 1</i></center></b></p><br><p>Bryn drew the queen of diamonds from the stack of playing cards on the wobbly table between her and Charlie Branson. The grizzled Vietnam vet eyed her from his wheelchair as she discarded an ace. She put on her best poker face and pretended to rearrange her hand. From somewhere behind the peeling paint on the west wall, the pipes clanked in the bowels of the old hospital-turned-homeless-shelter, and the furnace kicked on. Not that it would raise the temperature in this mammoth icebox by one degree, but something about the hiss of radiators was comforting.</p><br><p>Charlie drew a card from the tattered deck and flung it away too quickly. He must be close to going out. Good. It was two in the morning, and Bryn was hoping to catch a few hours of sleep before it was time to get breakfast going for the shelter?s residents.</p><br><p>Her husband?s twenty-four-hour shift at the fire station ended tomorrow. Adam had said something about taking her to a matinee, and he?d be suspicious if she fell asleep during the movie. Of course, his invitation had come before their big fight. Knowing him, he?d still be brooding and they would stay home and sulk?or argue.</p><br><p>Bryn shifted in the chair and rubbed the small of her back. She?d foregone sleep to stay up and play cards with Charlie in an effort to settle him down. He and the new guy had gotten into it again, and Charlie had been too worked up to sleep. He?d balked at her suggestion to read, but she knew the real truth?he was lonely. Just needed someone to sit with him.</p><br><p>Bryn had met Charlie at the library where she worked part-time. He was the most well-read man she knew, a fact that endeared him to Myrna Eckland, the library director at Hanover Falls? public library. Myrna had given Charlie a few odd jobs in exchange for the right to spend his days reading in a quiet corner of the stacks before wheeling to the shelter each evening?after securing his word that he wouldn?t miss his daily shower, of course.</p><br><p>Bryn slid the jack of diamonds from the draw pile and discarded it, but something made her stop and listen. Somewhere above them she heard an out-of-the-ordinary noise. She looked at Charlie. ?Did you hear that? Shhh . . .?</p><br><p>He put his free hand to his ear but shook his head. ?I don?t hear anything, sis, but that don?t mean nothin?. My ears are no good.? He craned his neck toward the hallway, listening again. ?It?s not the dogs, is it??</p><br><p>Zeke Downing, a new client at the shelter, had brought a bulldog pup named Boss with him when he checked in two weeks ago. The pup had nipped at Charlie?s dog, Sparky, the first day Zeke was here, and Charlie had gone ballistic.</p><br><p>Sparky was a stray that Susan Marlowe, the shelter?s director, let the old vet claim. Susan made Charlie keep the dog chained outside and buy its food out of his VA disability pension. But Charlie loved the mutt, a Labrador mix. Any friend of Sparky?s was a friend of Charlie?s, and any enemy of Sparky better watch out.</p><br><p>More than once, Zeke and Charlie had almost come to blows over the dogs. Bryn thought Sparky could take Boss without much effort, but Zeke was able-bodied and twice the size of Charlie. It would not be a pretty picture if the two men ever actually duked it out.</p><br><p>Charlie?s eyes narrowed. ?So help me, if that SOB let that mutt loose again . . .?</p><br><p>?Charlie . . .? She shook her head and feigned a stern look. ?You?d better not let Susan hear you use that kind of language.?</p><br><p>?What? <i>Mutt</i>?s not a bad word.?</p><br><p>?You know what I mean.? His smirk made it hard not to laugh. Bryn was mostly teasing, but Susan did have a zero-tolerance policy when it came to cursing.</p><br><p>?I didn?t actually say anything.?</p><br><p>?Yeah, but you know Susan . . . even initials are pushing it with her.?</p><br><p>He rolled his eyes and fanned out his cards.</p><br><p>?I don?t think Zeke?s even here tonight.? She held up a hand, listening for the sound again. ?Besides, it doesn?t sound like dogs. Maybe it?s just a siren, but it sounds different . . . more like a squeal. You don?t have a battery going out in your hearing aid, do you??</p><br><p>Charlie laid down his cards, put his thick pinky finger to his ear, and twisted. ?That better??</p><br><p>She shook her head. ?I still hear it.?</p><br><p>?This old building has so many creaks and groans I?m surprised anybody can sleep here. That?s the only good thing about these blame things??he adjusted the other hearing aid??I can just turn ?em off.?</p><br><p>The noise didn?t sound quite like distant sirens, but nevertheless, she shot up a quick prayer for her husband the way she always did when she knew he might be out on a run. Guilt pinched her. Adam wasn?t even supposed to be on duty tonight. He was only there because she?d talked him into pulling an extra shift. Ironic, given all the grief she?d thrown at him about the long hours he worked.</p><br><p>With Adam being low man on the totem pole, he always had to work holidays, and too many weekends. Sometimes Bryn wondered why they?d even bothered to get married if they were never going to be together. She thought she would go crazy if she had to spend one more long night alone in their little cracker box of a townhome. That was the whole reason she?d started volunteering here, taken the night shift. And how much worse would it be when they had kids?</p><br><p>The faint noise droned on. She looked at the stained ceiling. ?It almost sounds like it?s coming from upstairs.?</p><br><p>Charlie shook his head and a glint of mischief came to his eyes. ?Listen, girlie, if you?re just trying to weasel your way out of this game, you can forget it.? He drew another card and wriggled bushy eyebrows at her. ?I?m about to clean your clock.?</p><br><p>They took turns drawing and discarding cards in silence, but Bryn kept one ear tuned to the sound. Charlie was right: the noises in this old building had scared her to death the first time she?d worked the late shift. It was probably just the pipes creaking again, but it sounded different somehow tonight.</p><br><p>Susan was in the dining room, sleeping. She?d told Bryn she would take the middle-of-the-night rounds, but Bryn decided she?d do a walk-through as soon as they finished this hand, just to be sure nothing was amiss.</p><br><p>She?d almost forgotten about the noise when a dog started howling outside the building. Charlie?s head shot up. ?Now, <i>that</i> I heard. That?s Sparky.? Pressing his forearms to the wheelchair?s armrests and lifting his rear off the seat, he repositioned himself. He picked up his cards, fanned them out in gnarled fingers, then laid them facedown on the cluttered table before maneuvering his chair backward. ?I need to go check on him.?</p><br><p>Bryn gave a little growl and jumped up. ?Charlie Branson, if I didn?t know better, I?d think you put Sparky up to this. I am <i>one</i> card away from gin!?</p><br><p>He gave a snort. ?Don?t you worry, sis. I?ll be right back.?</p><br><p>?Stay here. I?ll go see what?s up.? She scooted around Charlie?s chair and went to peek down the hallway. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary, but she jogged to the end of the hall, fumbling with the key on the lanyard around her neck as she ran. The doors to the shelter?housed in the building?s basement?were locked at eleven each night unless the smokers could talk the volunteers into letting them have one last cigarette before they turned in.</p><br><p>Bryn punched in the code to disable the alarm, unlocked the door, and hurried up the short flight of stairs that led to the street-level parking behind the building. The November air hit her face, and her breath hung in a fog.</p><br><p>Sparky was tied in his usual spot. He yanked at his chain, alternately yipping and howling. Sparky looked like a black Labrador in color and build, but Charlie was proud of the dog?s lack of a pedigree. ?He?s a mutt like me . . . Heinz 57,? Charlie told anyone who asked.</p><br><p>Bryn knelt and framed the silky black head in her hands. His ears were on alert and his hackles stood stiff. ?Hey, boy,? she crooned. ?What?s wrong? Is that mean doggie giving you trouble again? Huh? Is he??</p><br><p>But Zeke wasn?t on tonight?s sign-in list, and Boss wasn?t tied up out here.</p><br><p>Bryn looked around to see if something else was causing Sparky?s excitement?maybe another animal?but the parking lot was empty except for her car and Susan?s, and the dilapidated old station wagon Tony Xavier lived in during the daylight hours when the shelter was closed.</p><br><p>She shushed Sparky again and stroked his head as he pushed his muzzle into the cup of her hands. But the minute she turned toward the door, he started in yapping again.</p><br><p>She went back and took him by the collar, unclipping the chain. ?What?s wrong, fella? You want to go for a little walk?? She scratched his head and panned the parking lot.</p><br><p>Dim light from the lone streetlight at the end of the lot caused the building to cast deep shadows. ?You?re okay, boy. Let?s walk a little bit.?</p><br><p>Sparky stood at her side, on alert, his breaths coming short, like he was on the trail of a rabbit.</p><br><p>She tightened her grip on his collar and clicked her tongue like she?d heard Charlie do before he wheeled his chair around the bumpy parking lot, Sparky in tow. She started away from the building, not liking how dark it was out here, and already hearing Adam?s lecture if he found out she was here by herself at two in the morning?if he found out she was here at all. Sparky angled back toward the building.</p><br><p>?What?s wrong, boy? I thought you wanted to go for a walk.?</p><br><p>He kept tugging, so Bryn let him lead her back to the building. Making an odd whimpering noise, he angled toward the door.</p><br><p>?Uh-uh, boy. Sorry. You know you?re not allowed. Come on, now. You go to sleep. Charlie?ll be out in the morning.?</p><br><p>She leaned down to reattach his chain, but at the sudden <i>bleep! bleep! bleep!</i> of an alarm blasting, Sparky shook loose of her and took off around the side of the building. Stupid dog.</p><br><p>But what was going on? She was certain she?d disabled the alarm before she came out.</p><br><p>Leaving the dog, she ran back into the building. ?Where?s Susan?? she shouted. Surely all the racket had awakened the director.</p><br><p>?Haven?t seen her. What?s going on?? Charlie wheeled toward her, confusion clouding his face.</p><br><p>?I don?t know. Could it be a fire drill? Do you have those here?? She?d only been volunteering at the shelter for three months, but they?d never had a fire drill while she was on call. Charlie would know, though. He was a fixture here.</p><br><p>He waggled his chin at her. ?Drills, yes, but never known ?em to do one at two o?clock in the morning.?</p><br><p>According to Susan, Charlie was the first person they?d taken in when the shelter opened two years ago, and he?d been here ever since, in spite of a policy that discouraged long-term residency.</p><br><p>Charlie made a three-point turn with his chair. ?Sparky?s okay??</p><br><p>?He?s fine, but I took him off his chain, and he got away from me.? She had to shout over the blare of the fire alarms. She didn?t even know where the alarms were . . . where to shut them off. She fought to remember what she?d learned at the training sessions about the procedure in case of fire?and came up blank.</p><br><p>She cast around the hallway, trying to think what to do next. Sixteen clients had signed in tonight, not counting the guys who worked night shift but had called to reserve beds for the night. Why wasn?t anybody awake? This shrieking was enough to wake the dead. But the hallway was empty except for her and Charlie.</p><br><p>She hurried toward the dining room to find Susan. Even if it turned out to be a false alarm, the director would no doubt call the fire in. Susan?s husband was a lieutenant at Station 2?Adam?s boss. If they called it in, Adam would make the run, and he didn?t know Bryn was here.</p><br><p>If he found out . . . She blew out a breath and with it pushed away the memory of the argument they?d had before Adam left for his shift Wednesday. He hadn?t called her once since then. But then, she hadn?t called him either. She sniffed the air and thought she detected a hint of smoke. Bobby. Sneaking another cigarette.</p><br><p>Where was Susan anyway?</p><br><p>?Hang on, Charlie. I?ll be right back.? She headed for the service elevator, breaking into a jog. But a shout brought her up short.</p><br><p>Susan appeared around the corner at the end of the T-shaped hall, racing toward them. ?Get everybody out! Get out! <i>Now!</i>? She swept past Bryn and pounded on the door of the shelter?s family quarters, where Linda Gomez and her children slept.</p><br><p>Bryn stared, and for a moment dared to hope Susan was just adding a little urgency to a routine fire drill. But when the director turned to her, Bryn saw panic in her eyes. This was no act.</p><br><p>?What?s going on?? Bryn felt like she was moving through wet concrete.</p><br><p>?The hallway on the second floor is full of smoke,? Susan yelled over her shoulder, running toward the dining room. ?Get everybody out. There?s fire somewhere!?</p><br><p>?Fire? Where?? Charlie wheeled down the hallway toward them, cradling a canvas bag.</p><br><p>?Upstairs. Second floor.? Susan pointed down the hallway to where the elevator led up to the shelter?s office space. ?I got off the elevator up there and I couldn?t even see.?</p><br><p>?I hope you didn?t ride the elevator back down,? Charlie scolded.</p><br><p>?I didn?t have a choice. I couldn?t see my way down the hall to the stairs.?</p><br><p>Susan was a firefighter?s wife. She knew the fire safety codes. She wouldn?t have used the elevator unless she had no choice.</p><br><p>Panting and coughing, the director pounded on the door to the family quarters again. ?Bryn, go check the men?s quarters and make sure everybody is out. I?ll get Linda and the kids up and get the other women out.?</p><br><p>?Charlie, <i>get out</i> of here! Now! You know the plan. We?ll meet outside in the parking lot.?</p><br><p>Bryn looked past Susan. ?I was just up there . . . not forty minutes ago. Everything was fine.? She retraced her steps in her mind. She?d just finished charting and filing the new intake forms when Charlie had appeared in the doorway and challenged her to a game of gin rummy. Clients weren?t supposed to be in the office area except for the intake interview or to make a phone call or get their prescription meds out of the locker, but Charlie was almost like an employee and had special privileges.</p><br><p>She searched her brain, trying to remember those last minutes in the office, then riding down in the elevator with Charlie. A hazy image formed and her pulse lurched. Surely she hadn?t forgotten to?</p><br><p>?You didn?t smell smoke when you were up there?? Susan?s voice sounded accusing.</p><br><p>?No. Nothing. Did you, Charlie?? The flood of dread rising inside her took firmer hold.</p><br><p>The veteran shook his head. ?No, but my sniffer don?t work too well.?</p><br><p>Susan grabbed the receiver from the phone hanging in the hallway. ?I called 9-1-1. Why aren?t they answering that alarm??</p><br><p>Bryn froze. ?You already called it in?? If he wasn?t out on another call, Adam would make the run. And if he discovered her here, she would never hear the end of it.</p><br><p>At the end of the hall, Linda Gomez and her children, all still in their pajamas, scurried toward the shelter?s main entrance.</p><br><p>Susan took charge. ?I?ll call again and then get the women out. Bryn, go! You take the men?s wing. Hurry!?</p><br><p>Bryn nodded and crossed the hallway to the men?s section with a new sense of urgency. The musty locker-room odor this wing always seemed to hold deluged her. Half a dozen shapes sat hunkered on cots against the far wall.</p><br><p>?What?s going on?? Tony X alternately clapped his hands over his ears and rubbed his eyes.</p><br><p>?We?ve got a fire in the building. We need to evacuate.? She had to shout over the blare of the alarms.</p><br><p>Bobby, a twenty-something addict whose parents had finally kicked him out of their house, crawled back under the thin blanket and yanked it over his head. ?Wake me up when it?s over,? he moaned.</p><br><p>?No, Bobby. This is serious. Get up. Everybody out. Where are the rest of the guys??</p><br><p>A heavily tattooed man?Bryn couldn?t remember his name?pointed toward the dining room. ?Some of them headed for the back exit.?</p><br><p>?Okay . . . okay. Come on guys, move it. Bobby, come on!?</p><br><p>He didn?t argue and trudged after the other men into the hall. Bryn peered into the darkened room. All the beds were empty. A couple of the new guys had gotten on night shift at the plastics plant and, according to the log, they didn?t get off work until three a.m. She glanced at the clock. <i>2:27.</i> They wouldn?t be coming in for a while.</p><br><p>Out in the hall, Charlie rolled his chair ahead of them, the canvas bag holding all his earthly goods balanced on his lap. The air was still clear, but now another set of smoke alarms kicked in. This time when Bryn inhaled, she clearly smelled smoke.</p><br><p>The crescendo of distant sirens rose from the west?Station 2.</p><br><p>Bryn darted into the game room across the hall and grabbed her purse from the back of the sofa. She looped the narrow strap over her head and slipped an arm through, crossing the strap over her chest. Thank goodness she?d brought it down with her. She usually kept it locked in the office, but tonight she?d brought it downstairs so she?d have her cell phone and change for the vending machine.</p><br><p>She traced her steps back through the doorway only to see Sparky barreling through the back door. The dog skidded to a stop three feet in front of her and gave a high-pitched yelp, then ran back outside, nearly tripping Susan.</p><br><p>Bryn heard Charlie hollering Sparky?s name from outside the door. Good?at least Charlie was safely out. Someone must have helped him maneuver his chair up the rickety makeshift ramp.</p><br><p>Susan scowled. ?Why is that dog loose? What are you doing, Bryn? <i>Get out!</i> Is anybody still in the men?s quarters??</p><br><p>?No. The beds are all empty.?</p><br><p>?You?re sure??</p><br><p>?Yes. Everybody?s out.?</p><br><p>?Let?s go, then! We?ll do a head count in the parking lot.? Susan motioned for her to follow and ran back toward the entrance.</p><br><p>?I?m right behind you.?</p><br><p>She jogged behind Susan, but a nagging image wouldn?t let her leave the building yet. She had to check . . . had to make sure she was wrong. The minute the director disappeared through the outside door, Bryn wheeled and ran in the other direction down the hallway to the door that opened onto the stairwell.</p><br><p><center><b><i>She turned and pressed her<br>back against the door. If she<br>went out there now, Adam<br>would see her for sure.</i></b></center></p><br><p>? 2010 Deborah Raney</p> <BR><BR><i>Continues...</i> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>Almost Forever</b> by <b>Deborah Raney</b> Copyright © 2010 by Deborah Raney. Excerpted by permission.<br> All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.