I looked up at my apartment's ceiling, hobbling along on my crutch. I found the spot I thought would be the middle of Mrs. S's living room and noted that one of my old sofas was directly beneath it.
Using the crutch as a lever, I slipped one end of it behind one of my big old bookcases and heaved. The bookcase shuddered and then fell in a great crash of paperback novels and hardwood shelves, smashing down onto my couch. I grunted in satisfaction and climbed up onto the fallen bookcase, using its back as a ramp. I crawled painfully up to the end of the ramp, lifted my right hand, and triggered one of the rings I wore there.
They were magical tools, created to retain a little bit of kinetic energy every time I moved my arm, and when they were operating at capacity they packed one hell of a lot of energy - and I had freshly charged them up on the punching bag. When I cut loose with the ring, invisible force struck my ceiling, blowing completely through it and through the floor of the room above, tearing at faded carpeting the color of dried mustard.
I adjusted my aim a little and blew the entire charge out of the ring on the next finger, and another one after that, each one blasting the opening wider, until it was big enough that I thought I ought to fit through it.
I hooked the padded end of my crutch over the broken end of a thick floor joist and used it to haul myself up to my good leg. Then I tossed the crutch up through the hole and reached up to pull myself through.
Mister let out a harsh, worried meow, and I froze in place. My cat was still in my apartment.
I looked wildly around the room for him, and found him crouching in his usual favorite spot atop the highest bookshelf. His hair stood on end and every muscle on him seemed tight and strained.
I'd already tossed the crutch through. If I went back for him, I might not be able to stand once I'd made it back to the ramp. I had no idea how I'd hold him while climbing up, assuming I could do it at all. Mister weighs the next-best thing to thirty pounds. That's one hell of a handicap on a pull-up.
For that matter, if the fire spread as quickly as I thought it would, the extra time it took might mean that I wound up trapped with no exit. And there would be no one to help Mr. S and the Willoughbys.
I loved my cat. He was family.
But as I stared at him I knew that I couldn't help him.
"Unless you use your flipping brain, Harry," I snapped at myself. "Duh. Never quit. Never quit."
The sunken windows around my apartment were too small to be a means of escape for me, but Mister could clear them with ease. I took aim, used a single charge from my ring, and shattered the sunken window closest to the cat. Mister took the hint at once, and prowled down the tops of two bookcases. It was a five-foot leap from the top of the shelf to the window well, but Mister made it look casual. I felt myself grinning fiercely as he vanished through the broken window and into the cool air of the October night.
Stars and stones, at least I'd accomplished one positive thing that day.
I turned, reached up into the opening with my arms straight over my head, and hopped as hard as I could with one leg. It wasn't much of a leap, but it was enough to let me get my arms through and my elbows wedged against either side of the opening. My ribs were on fire as I kicked and wriggled my way up through the hole and hauled myself into Mrs. Spunkelcrief's living room.
It had last been decorated in the seventies, judging by the mustard yellow carpet and the olive green wallpaper, and it was full of furniture and knickknacks. I dragged myself all the way through the hole, knocking over a little display stand of collector's plates as I did. The room was dimly lit by the growing flames outside. I grabbed my crutch, climbed to my feet through screaming pain, and hobbled farther into the apartment.
I found Mrs. S in the apartment's one bedroom. She was sleeping mostly sitting up, propped on a pile of pillows. Her old television was on, sans volume, with subtitles appearing at the bottom of the screen. I gimped over to her and shook her gently.
She woke up with a start and slugged me with one tiny fist. I fell backward onto my ass, more out of pure surprise than anything else, and grimaced in pain - from the fall, not the punch. I shook it off and looked up again, to find the little old lady holding a little revolver, probably a .38. In her hands, it looked magnum-sized. She held it like she knew what she was doing, too, in two hands, peering down at me through the gun's sights.
"Mr. Dresden!" she said, her voice squeaky. "How dare you!"
"Fire!" I said. "Mrs. S, there's a fire! A fire!"
"Well, I won't fire if you just sit still," she said in a querulous tone. She took her left hand off the gun and reached for her phone. "I'm calling the police. You hold real still or I gotta shoot you. No bluff. This here is a grandfathered gun. Legal and proper."
I tried to point toward the bedroom door without moving my body, indicating it with my fingertips and tilts of my head.
"Are you on drugs, boy?" she said, punching numbers on the phone without looking. "You are acting like a crazy junkie. Coming into an old woman's . . ." She glanced past me, where there was some fairly bright light flickering wildly in the hallway outside the bedroom.
I kept wiggling my fingers and nodding toward it, desperately.
Mrs. S's eyes widened and her mouth dropped open. "Fire!" she said abruptly. "There's a fire right there!"
I nodded frantically.
She lowered the gun and started kicking her way clear of covers and pillows. She wore flannel pajamas, but grabbed at a blue robe in any case and hurried toward the door. "Come on, boy! There's a fire!"
I struggled desperately to my feet and started hobbling out. She turned to look at me, apparently surprised that she was moving faster than I was. You could hear the fire now, and smoke had begun to thicken the air.
I pointed up at the ceiling and shouted, "The Willoughbys! Willoughbys!"
She looked up. "Lord God almighty!" She turned and hurried down the hall, coming within ten feet of a wall that was already becoming a sheet of flame. She grabbed at something, cursed, then pulled her robe down over her hand and picked up something, using the material as an oven mitt. She hurried over to me with a ring of keys. "Come on! The front door's already going up! Out the back!"
We both hurried out the back door of the house and into its minuscule little yard, and I saw at once that the entire front side of the house was aflame.
The stairs up to the Willoughbys' place were already on fire.
I turned to her and shouted, "Ladder! Where's the ladder? I need to use the ladder!"
"No!" she shouted back. "You need to use the ladder!"
"Okay!" I shouted back, and gave her a thumbs-up.
She hustled back to the little storage shed in the backyard. She picked a key and unlocked it. I swung the door open and seized the metal extending ladder I used to put up and take down Christmas lights every year. I ditched my crutch and used the ladder itself to take some of the weight. I went as fast as I could, but it seemed to take forever to position the ladder under the Willoughbys' bedroom windows.
Mrs. Spunkelcrief handed me a loose brick from a little flower planter's wall and said, "Here. I can't climb this thing. My hip."
I took the brick and dropped it in my duster pocket. Then I started humping myself up the ladder, taking a grip with both hands, then hopping up with a painful little jump. Repeat, each time growing more painful, more difficult. I clenched my teeth over the screams.
And then there was a window in front of me.
I got the brick out of my pocket, hauled off, and shattered the window.
Black smoke bellowed out, catching me on the inhale. I started coughing viciously, my voice strangled as I tried to shout, "Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby! Fire! You've got to get out! Fire! Come to the window and down the ladder!"
I heard two people coughing and choking. They were trying to say, "Help!"
Something, maybe the little propane tank on Mrs. Spunkelcrief's grill, exploded with a noise like a dinosaur-sized watermelon hitting the ground. The concussion knocked Mrs. S down - and kicked the bottom of the ladder out from under me.
I fell. It was a horrible, helpless feeling, my body twisting uselessly as I tried to land well - but I'd had no warning at all, and it was a futile attempt. The small of my back hit the brick planter, and I achieved a new personal best for pain.
"Oh, God in Heaven," Mrs. Spunkelcrief said. She knelt beside me. "Harry?"
Somewhere, sirens had begun to wail. They wouldn't get there in time for the Willoughbys.
"Trapped," I choked out, as soon as I was able to breathe again. "They're up there, calling for help."
The fire roared louder and grew brighter.
Mrs. S stared up at the window. She grabbed the ladder and wrestled it all the way back up into position, though the effort left her panting. Then she tried to put a foot up on the first step. She grasped the ladder, began to shift her weight - and groaned as her leg buckled and she fell to the ground.
She screamed, agony in her quavering voice. "Oh, God in Heaven, help us!"
A young black man in a dark, knee-length coat hurdled the hedges at the back of the yard and bounded onto the ladder. He was built like a professional lineman, moved more quickly than a linebacker, and started up the ladder like it was a broad staircase. The planet's only Knight of the Cross flashed me a quick grin on the way up. "Dresden!"
"Sanya!" I howled. "Two! There're two of them in the bedroom!"
"Da, two!" he replied, his deep voice booming. The curving saber blade of Esperacchius rode at his hip and he managed it with thoughtless, instinctive skill as he went through the window. He was back a moment later, with Mrs. Willoughby draped over one shoulder, while he supported most of Mr. Willoughby's staggering body with the other.
Sanya went first, the old woman hanging limply over his shoulder, so that he could help Mr. Willoughby creep out the window and onto the ladder. They came down slowly and carefully, and as Sanya carefully laid the old woman out onto the grass, the first of the emergency response crews arrived.
"God in Heaven," Mr. S said, weeping openly as she put her hand on Sanya's arm. "He must have sent you to us, son."
Sanya smiled at her as he helped Mr. Willoughby lower himself to the ground. Then he turned to my landlady and said, his Russian accent less heavy than the last time I had seen him, "It was probably just a coincidence, ma'am."
"I don't believe in those," said Mrs. Spunkelcrief. "Bless you, son," she said, and hugged him hard. Her arms couldn't have gotten around half of him, but Sanya returned the hug gently for a moment.
"Ma'am," he said, "you should direct the medical technicians to come back here."
"Thank you, thank you," she said, releasing him. "But now I have to go get those ambulance boys over here." She paused and gave me a smile. "And thank you, Harry. Such a good boy." Then she hurried away.
Mouse came racing around the side of the house where Mrs. S had just gone, and rushed to stand over me, lapping at my face. Molly wasn't far behind. She let out a little cry and threw her arms around my shoulders. "Oh, God, Harry!" She shouldered Mouse aside and squeezed tight for several seconds. She looked up and said, "Sanya? What are you doing here?"
"Hey, hey," I said. "Take it easy."
Molly eased up on her hug. "Sorry."
"Sanya," I said, nodding to him. "Thanks for your help."
"Part of the job, da?" he replied, grinning. "Glad to help."
"All the same," I said, my voice rough, "thank you. If anything had happened to them . . ."
"Oh, Harry," Molly said. She hugged me again.
"Easy, padawan, easy," I said quietly. "Think you should be careful."
She drew back with a frown. "Why?"
I took a slow breath and said, very quietly, "I can't feel my legs."