When the sixth floor of Las
Palmas Hotel caught fire Robbie Brownlaw was in the diner across the street
about to have lunch.
It was a cool March afternoon in San Diego and Brownlaw's
turkey burger had just arrived when he saw orange flames roiling behind the
hotel windows. He took a bite of the sandwich and hustled outside just as the
sixth story windows blew and an orange explosion knocked him back against the
brick wall of the diner.
Robbie heard screams up there in the fire. He had never heard
screams like these. Then he heard all the yelling as people spilled from the
restaurants and offices, pointing up at Las Palmas while debris clattered to the
asphalta splintered chair, a flaming lamp shade, a nightstand with the
drawers hanging out.
Fire alarms shrieked competing warnings down the street.
Brownlaw heard a guy screaming up on the sixth floor right through the ringing.
Such fear. He looked up, still braced against the wall of the Sorrento Diner,
heart pounding like a dryer with a load of sneakers.
Then he pushed off and ran toward Las
Palmas, weaving between the stopped and honking cars, past the smoking carcass
of a television set with the wall mounts still on it that had crashed onto
Brownlaw pulled up at the lobby door of the hotel and let the
onrush of humanity sweep past him: a young man in a blazer with a nameplate on
and a phone to his ear, a wide-eyed oldster on a wobbling cane, a cleaning lady
still wearing yellow rubber gloves and glaring at Robbie as if he had caused
this. Then two more old men in shabby suits, a gangsta in a wifebeater shirt
swearing in Spanish, an Indian couple with three bawling children, a tall black
man in a Sonics T-shirt, then a pretty young woman with a tangle of blond hair,
a black eye and a bathrobe around her.
Robbie headed up the stairs past an old woman with a Yorkie
in her arms. He felt lucky and useful. The smoke was thick by the fourth landing
and hot by the sixth. There was a weak moaning behind the first door he came to.
It was locked but it only took him one kick and a shoulder slam to break it
down. Inside he found a very old woman trapped under the bed mattress, which had
apparently fallen onto her from the upended springs and frame. Only her neck and
head and one arm were sticking out from under it. She looked up at him through
the smoke as if he were God himself and Brownlaw told her she'd be fine as he
bent and dug his fingers into the mattress and pulled it away. The old woman
couldn't get up so Brownlaw just hauled her over his shoulders and ran back down
the stairs with her.
By the time he got back up to the sixth story, he was
coughing hard and his eyes burned and the sirens were wailing closer and all but
one of the room doors had been thrown open.
Behind that door Brownlaw could hear the screams of a man,
the same terrified, animal sounds he'd heard on the street. One kick later the
door shuddered open and he was in. The smoke was thick but Robbie could see the
guy kneeling at the glassless window with his back to him. He was wearing shorts
and that was all. He was clutching the window sill, bellowing at the city with
When Robbie was halfway across the room the man turned and
looked at him and Robbie realized it wasn't fear at all. The man wheeled and
came at him fast. He was very big and had Robbie in a wrestler's bear-hug in an
instant. He lifted Robbie off the ground and swung him around the room. During
those two rapid orbits Brownlaw stared from inches away into a face he would
never forget or understanda face of rage and desperation whose depths he
could not measure. Pitiless eyes. He tried to groin the guy with his knee but
the man was so tall all he got was thigh. His gun was in his shoulder rig, which
was under his sport coat, but his arms were pinned. He could not draw breath.
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