Casey Tanner had never before had colleagues who played practical jokes. She was used to a corporate water cooler over which smiles were rarely traded. She’d once spilled a nonfat latte across her keyboard when a receptionist cackled too loudly while watching an online video about grandmas smoking pot.
So it was only slowly, over many long, uncomfortable moments, that Casey wondered if she’d been had. If she’d been punk’d, for lack of a better word.
Because surely the intern with the wide eyes and trembling chin was joking about having just called 9-1-1.
“Tell me once more why you thought this was necessary?” Casey asked the young girl—Ellie, if she was remembering the name correctly—whose cropped ginger hair was in disarray around her head. The poor thing could be barely more than a first-year in college.
“The CO2 detector in the basement was screaming. We should open windows or get everyone out of here right now.”
The girl words might be hyperbolic, but her face was serious. If Casey had wanted this to be a hilarious prank, it sure wasn’t turning out that way. Cold fear crawled along her spine, but she focused on Ellie and worked to stay calm. Ellie already looked like she might pass out.
“All right,” Casey said, “easy does it. I want you to take a deep breath and—”
“I don’t want to breathe deeply if the air is poisoned!”
Casey pressed her lips together. She had only just started at Robot Lit, a youth literacy nonprofit, two weeks before. She was still trying to figure out where the extra copier paper was stored, never mind what do to in a CO2 emergency. Ingrid, their director, was out taking her ten-year-old daughter to the doctor, which meant Casey was probably the most senior person in charge. Never mind that she was the newest.
At that moment, though, none of it mattered. If the building was filling with C02, she had to get her colleagues out safely. Without causing a panic. Her mind raced.
“Okay, Ellie,” she said after a moment, “Most everyone should be on the third floor here. So I want you to calmly—very calmly—let people know that we are being extra careful about our CO2 levels, and folks should stand outside for a bit while the fire department gets here. While you’re doing that, I’m going to make absolutely sure the rest of the building is clear. Does that make sense?”
Ellie nodded, her eyes enormous in her small face.
“Don’t forget to check the restrooms, okay?”
“And no freaking out, right?”
“Say it with me,” Casey said, grabbing the young girl’s hand. “We’re being what?”
“And what should folks do?”
“Should they panic?”
“Good. Go tell them.”
Casey breathed a small sigh as Ellie walked away, grateful that Robot Lit only had six employees. And there weren’t any kids there at the moment. For once, their small staff would be an asset.
Casey grabbed her coat, her eye catching the white of a snow-covered day outside her window. At least if she had to spend time in the cold, she’d get to look down Main Street and see all the holiday lights twinkling.
She heard sirens in the distance as she wound her way down to the conference rooms and kitchen on the second floor, looking for anyone as she went. The rooms were empty, so she headed into the lobby on the first floor. All clear. Through the door’s wavy glass, she spotted Ellie along with the other Robot Lit employees outside, clustered in a small circle. She knew she should join them. Instead, pushing aside a prickle of unease, she descended into the belly of the old warehouse on Main Street, all the way to the basement.
She wasn’t going to just let fireman rumble into Robot Lit without knowing what was the matter. It was her job, after all, if Ingrid wasn’t there. She would simply find out if the CO2 detector was really going off, or if it was something else entirely.
Careful, a small inner voice cautioned. It was this need to know everything—and, okay, maybe control everything—that had come close to unraveling her life a few short months ago. Casey had screwed up so badly that she’d left a good paying job in a Minneapolis suburb for a chance at a new start in White Pine and be closer to her sister, Audrey. Now, she was working at Robot Lit for a fraction of her former salary and living in a creaky Cape Cod instead of her sleek city apartment.
It was all worth it, of course. Casey would do just about anything to atone for her past. She grimaced as she remembered how selfishly she’d acted just a few short months ago, nearly ruining Audrey’s chance at true love.
She wasn’t about to make that mistake again. She figured she could, however, spare five minutes to figure out what was happening with the CO2 detector.
Its shill beeping pierced her ears as she flipped on a small overhead bulb in the basement. She inhaled the dank air of dim space. C02 was odorless—she wouldn’t be able to smell anything—but she took an inventory of her breathing, of her vision, of any pains in her head that could signal toxic levels. At her body’s first sign of symptoms, no matter how tiny, she’d be out of there.
Unless she collapsed in a clueless heap first.
Hoping for the best, she followed the beeping to a small box on the wall. The sirens were louder now. The fire house was just up the street, and the firefighters would be here in no time.
A light was flashing, strobe-bright in the dim space. Head fine, vision clear, she thought, accounting for her every breath and movement. Using the flashlight app on her phone, she trained a blaze of light on the panel. There were three lights—green, yellow, and red. But only one of them was flashing.
The damn thing was low on batteries.
Casey groaned as the thunder of heavy boots came down the stairs. Three firefighters swept into the room, their tanks and gear making them seem like giants. They weren’t wearing their oxygen masks, meaning she could see their faces. Two men and a woman.
“What are you doing down here?” the tallest of the two men asked. His hazel eyes were sharp. The bridge of his nose was slightly crooked, like it had been broken in a fight.
“I just wanted to check and make sure things were all right,” she said. “I was looking—”
“You should be outside with the others. This is a potentially dangerous situation.”
“I know,” Casey said, feeling small and silly, “I was trying—”
The fireman shined his flashlight into her eyes. She blinked. “Do you have a headache? Nausea?”
“No, this is all a misunderstanding. The detector is—”
“Did you make the call?”
Frustration needled her. The man hadn’t let her finish a sentence yet. “No, that’s what I’m trying to tell you. An intern called when she thought something was wrong. But the thing is out of batteries. That’s all.”
She stepped aside so the massive firefighter could take a closer look at the white box on the wall. Underneath the smoky, chalky smell of his gear, Casey detected a scent like wood chips and cinnamon.
The other firefighters stayed a few feet behind, sharing a look that signaled to Casey this wasn’t the first time they’d had a false alarm on a CO2 detector.
“Write it up, Lu?” the woman asked. Her dark eyes were striking in her pale face.
The man’s name was Lou, Casey realized. It seemed an odd name for him—like calling bulldog Fluffy.
“When was the last time this device was calibrated?”
“I’m sorry, I have no idea. Lou. Or is it Louis? Louie?” Casey figured she’d better get on this man’s good side, and fast.
“Lu is short for lieutenant,” he replied, eyes sparking with irritation. Underneath the visor of his helmet, the lines of his face were granite hard.
“Oh.” She could feel her cheeks redden. “I’m sorry. Look, I just started here a couple weeks ago.”
The lieutenant trained his jaw at the ceiling. His flashlight beam slid down an old copper pipe. “You got a sprinkler system installed?” he asked.
Was he not listening to anything she said? She was a brand new employee, but he was still grilling her. It may have been her imagination, but Casey could swear the other two firefighters had just groaned quietly.
“I don’t—I couldn’t tell you,” she stumbled. She checked the time on her phone. The employees had been standing outside for a while in the Minnesota cold, and she figured she ought to herd them down the street to the Rolling Pin and buy them all hot chocolate for their trouble.
“Are we settled here? Can I go back upstairs to the others?”
The lieutenant tore his eyes from the copper pipe and looked around the basement—past the boxes of stationery and the old phone books and an oddly placed plastic hula hoop.
“I want to take a closer look at things,” he said. “Quinn and Reese, you two head upstairs, check and see that the smoke detectors all have working batteries and the fire exits aren’t encumbered. I’ll be up in a few.”
Casey watched the female firefighter open her mouth, think better of what she was going to say, and close it. Together, the two firefighters tromped back up the steps in their heavy gear.
“So…can I go?” Casey asked, unsure of what she was supposed to be doing. The lieutenant frowned, a motion that bunched the chiseled lines of his face. He’d be handsome, Audrey thought, if he wasn’t so completely abrupt about everything.
“If you would, I need you to answer a few questions.”
Casey shifted, feeling suddenly like she was under investigation. She quickly texted Leif, their program coordinator.
All clear inside. Take everyone to rolling pin. Buy hot choc. I’ll be there in a few.
She hit send as the lieutenant made a low rumbling in his throat. The noise involuntarily sent goose bumps up and down her arms.
“You have a smoke detector down here?” he asked, making his way deeper into the basement. He flipped on buzzing overhead lights as he went.
“I don’t know,” she replied, trailing in his wake.
The lieutenant made the low rumbling in his throat again, and it struck Casey that the sound was of disapproval. Her jaw clenched with irritation. Why were they still down here if this was just a case of low batteries?
Casey tapped her toe on the scuffed cement floor. She watched the lieutenant scan the pipes and boards all around. She caught a flash of blond under his helmet. The lock of hair looked thick and wavy in a way that had her fingertips itching to touch it. At least until he made the low rumble in his throat a third time.
“Can’t find a single smoke detector down here. You’ll want to change that.”
Yes, your highness, she thought.
“I’ll talk to the director,” she said instead.
“And a fire extinguisher. You’ll want one of those too.”
“I’ll add it to the list.”
“What’s your name?” He was staring at the pipes on the ceiling again. As if he couldn’t be bothered from his all-important inspection to focus on her.
“What brought you to Robot Lit?”
“Job change,” she said. “I moved down here from Eagan.”
She pictured the bare walls of her new house, the naked wood floors, and the stacks of boxes she needed to empty, and held back an overwhelmed sigh. The mountain of work ahead of her was daunting, made more so by the fact that she was desperate to find her Christmas decorations. It was December first already, and not a single ornament was in place, no matter that she had taped a label on every box, listing all the contents of each one in Sharpie. But the boxes she’d identified as “Holiday”—inventoried with bullet points like “fake snow, tinsel, Rudolph figures” and more—simply couldn’t be found.
“Are you a tutor at Robot Lit?” This time the lieutenant looked up from his writing, and for a brief moment the strict lines around his mouth and eyes relaxed. Casey’s breath caught unexpectedly.
“I’m an accountant,” she managed. “They brought me on to help get their finances in order. And keep them that way.”
She left out the part about taking a huge pay cut to come here and trying to rebuild her relationship with her sister. In other words, the part where she was blind and selfish and in need of a shakeup.
She squared her shoulders, trying to seem more confident than she felt. The lieutenant might have rugged good looks, but she didn’t want him knowing anything about her. The way he was finding every flaw in this building probably translated to finding flaws in people. And Lord knew she had plenty for him to uncover.
She glanced at her phone as a text message from Leif came in.
Everyone at Rolling Pin. Text when you can.
“Almost finished?” she asked, reading the text message again she didn’t linger too long on the almond shape of the lieutenant’s eyes.
“For now,” he said. “On our way back up, let’s take the elevator. I want to see how the emergency call button is functioning.”
Casey blinked. She didn’t even know Robot Lit had an elevator. Which was just as well. Small spaces always caused her heart to pound and her head to hurt. Elevators especially.
She tamped down the lump of worry. It’s not as if they were shooting up to the top of the Empire State Building for crying out loud.
Nevertheless, her throat was dry as she followed the lieutenant into the elevator. Above the collar of his fireman’s coat, she caught a glimpse of his neck. The skin was golden enough to have her picturing droplets of honey on a sunny day.
When the doors slid shut behind them, the lieutenant hit floor three, then punched the brass button with the fireman’s cap on it. The elevator jerked into motion. He kept his finger on the panel, waiting for some kind of response. To take her mind off the cramped space, Casey studied the fine blond hairs on the back of the lieutenant’s enormous hand. They looked so delicate in contrast to the rest of him. His spicy smell was back, so much so that her head was all but filled with it. She told herself the pounding in her chest was from the enclosed space.
The lieutenant pressed the fire call button again and again. No response.
“Has anyone used—” the lieutenant began. But the words died on his lips when the elevator squawked to a halt, and they were plunged into darkness.