Kat's eyes widened.
"Logan is calling everyone into command."
Kat slid out of bed and reached for her own clothes. "What could be going on out there?"
"Nothing good, that's for damn sure."
"Is there a way upstairs?" Gray asked.
Fiona stared at the closed gate, rooted in place, eyes wide and unblinking. Gray read the signs of shock in the girl.
"Fiona…" Gray stepped around and leaned close, nose to nose, filling her vision. "Fiona, we must get away from the fire."
Behind her, the firestorm spread rapidly, fueled by the stacks of dry books and broken pine shelving. Flames had climbed and lapped to the ceiling. Smoke churned and rolled along the roof. Sprinklers continued to leak tepidly into the conflagration, adding steam to the toxic pall.
The heat intensified with each breath. Still, as Gray took Fiona's hands in his, she shivered, her whole body trembling. But at least his touch finally focused her eyes on him.
"Is there a way upstairs? To another level?"
Fiona glanced up. A pall of smoke obscured the tin ceiling tiles. "Some old rooms. An attic…"
"Yes. Perfect. Can we get up there?"
She shook her head at first slowly, then more firmly, reviving to the danger. "No. The only stairs are…" She waved feebly toward the fire. "At the back of the building."
"On the outside."
She nodded. Ash swirled in fiery eddies around them as the wall of fire advanced.
Gray cursed silently. There must've once been an interior staircase, before the building was split into a shop and upper rooms. But no longer. He'd have to improvise.
"Do you have an ax?" he asked.
Fiona shook her head.
"How about a crowbar? Something to open crates or boxes?"
Fiona stiffened and nodded. "By the cash register."
"Stay here." Gray edged along the left-hand wall. It offered the clearest path back toward the central desk. The fire had not quite reached it.
"I told you to stay back."
"I know where the soddin' crowbar is," she snapped at him.
Gray recognized the terror behind her anger, but it was an improvement over the limp-limbed shock from a moment ago. Plus it matched his own fury. At himself. It was bad enough the girl had tailed him earlier, but now he'd allowed himself to be trapped by unknown assassins. He'd been too distracted by thoughts of Rachel, too dismissive of this mission and its parameters, and now it wasn't only his life in jeopardy.
Fiona pushed ahead of him, red-eyed and coughing from the smoke. "It's over here." She leaned across the desk, reached behind it, and tugged free a long green steel bar.
"Let's go." He led the way back toward the advancing flames. He pulled out of his wool sweater and traded it for the crowbar.
"Wet the sweater down. Soak it good in that sprinkler." He pointed with the crowbar. "And yourself, for that matter."
"What are you going to—?"
"Try to make our own staircase."
Gray mounted one of the bookshelf ladders and scrambled up. The smoke churned above his upraised face. The very air burned. Gray poked the crowbar at one of the tin ceiling tiles. It was easily dislodged and nudged aside. As he had hoped, the shop roof was a cantilevered drop ceiling. It hid the rafter-and-plank floor of the story above.
Gray climbed to the top of the ladder and scaled the last few shelves of the bookcase. He perched atop it. Using this vantage, he jammed his crowbar between two of the planks. It sank deep. He shouldered and levered the crowbar. The steel bar ripped through the old wood. Still, he barely managed to gouge out a mouse hole.
Eyes watering and burning, Gray leaned down. A racking cough shook through him. Not good. It would be a race between his crowbar and the smoke. Gray glanced back to the fire. It grew fiercer. The smoke belched thicker.
He'd never make it at this rate.
Movement drew his gaze back down. Fiona had scrambled up the ladder. She had found a kerchief, soaked it, and had it wrapped around the lower half of her face like a bandit, a fitting disguise in her case.
She held up his soggy wool sweater. She had soaked herself, too, seeming to shrink in size like a wet puppy. Gray realized she was younger than the seventeen he had guessed earlier. She could be no more than fifteen. Her eyes were red-rimmed with panic—but also shone with hope, placing some blind faith in him.
Gray hated when people did that…because it always worked.
Gray tied the arms of his sweater around his neck and let the rest drape over his back. He tugged up a flap of sodden wool to cover his mouth and nose, offering some insulation from the ash-thickened air.
With water soaking through the back of his shirt, Gray knelt up again, ready to attack the stubborn planks. He sensed the presence of Fiona below. And the responsibility.
Gray searched the space between the drop ceiling and the rafters for any other means of escape. All around, piping and wiring crisscrossed in a haphazard pattern, plainly added piecemeal after the two-story home had been sectioned into a lower shop and upper apartment. The newer renovations appeared shoddy, the difference between Old World craftsmanship and modern slipshod construction.
As he searched, Gray spotted a break in the uniform run of planks and rafters. A boxed-off section, three feet square, framed by thicker bracing. Gray recognized it immediately. He'd been right earlier. The bracing marked the opening where a long-demolished interior staircase had once passed through to the floor above.
But how securely had it been sealed up?
Only one way to find out.
Gray rose up on his heels, stood atop the bookcase, and followed it like a balance beam in the direction of the framed opening. It was only a few yards—but it led deeper into the shop, toward the fire.
"Where are you going?" Fiona demanded from atop the ladder.
Gray didn't have the breath to explain. The smoke choked thicker with every step. The heat grew to an open-furnace intensity. He finally reached the section of bookshelf below the sealed stairwell.
Glancing down, Gray saw that the bookcase's lower shelves already smoldered. He'd reached the firestorm's leading edge.
No time to waste.
Bracing himself, he slammed his crowbar up.
The tip plunged easily through the thinner wood planking. It was no more than pressed fiberboard and vinyl tiles. Shoddy, as he'd hoped. Thank God for the lack of modern work ethic.
Gray hauled on his crowbar, cranking like a machine as the air burned and the heat blistered. Soon he had created an opening wide enough to climb through.