Home > A Brighter Flame

A Brighter Flame
Author: Christine Nolfi

 


Chapter 1

Vale awoke to the scream of sirens.

Two police cruisers sped by the apartment building, one after the other. The repeated blare of an air horn followed. A fire truck stopped somewhere nearby in Pittsburgh’s strip district. Just down the street, Vale guessed, dragging her eyes open.

A dank odor spiked the air. Coughing, Vale lifted her head from the pillow. Dawn light streamed across the floor. Shaking off the remnants of sleep, she recalled last night’s argument with her father. Lately it seemed they argued every Saturday night. Now the memory blended with the acrid scent filling her nose and the commotion down on the street. It took on the significance of a warning.

Vale scrambled from the bed. In some small part of her heart, she feared her greatest worry had come to pass. As if the scent of smoke, seeping into the apartment, signaled the folly of her dreams.

After dressing quickly, she rushed out the door. She raced down the staircase to the ground floor. A second fire truck rumbled past. The din of its air horns lifted Vale’s shoulders to her ears.

Popular restaurants and bars lined the strip district. The vibrant assortment of nightlife rimmed the Allegheny River’s sparkling waters. This early on a Sunday, the area was usually quiet. Today was frighteningly out of the ordinary. Heavy wisps of smoke curled through the air. Sleepy-eyed apartment dwellers stumbled out of buildings. They joined the worried business owners and their employees, most of whom were craning their necks at the fire trucks farther down the street. Vale did the same, looking past the sea of faces in an unsuccessful attempt to get a fix on the unfolding calamity.

Firefighters spilled onto the sidewalk. A heavyset woman in a baker’s apron shouted encouragement. A young man with dreadlocks steered his open-mouthed girlfriend off the curb, away from the danger. Stepping around them, Vale approached the chaotic scene with her heart in her throat.

Another police cruiser flew past. It screeched to a halt behind the fire trucks.

Vale’s stomach lurched. She spotted a crowd gathering across the street from the bar she owned with her father.

Snapping and sparking, flames rippled across the northern end of the Crafty Cocktail’s roofline. Tongues of fire raced down the side of the building. The blaze hadn’t yet reached the adjacent buildings, an Indian restaurant and a French bakery. In a daze, Vale joined the crowd eyeing the smoke billowing from the one-story bar. A sob threatened to burst forth, and she covered her mouth. The conflagration’s intense heat had shattered all the windows, including the signature stained-glass window she’d commissioned a local artist to create. The river of broken glass crunched underfoot as firefighters sprinted around the side of the building.

The fire captain appeared beside the second truck. Vale’s heart pounded in her ears as she approached him.

“The bar is empty, isn’t it?” she asked, desperate for confirmation.

“There’s no one inside, ma’am.”

“You’re sure?”

“I am.” She was about to inform him that she was one of the bar’s owners when he glanced back toward the building. “Excuse me.”

A female officer climbed out of the last cruiser. She eyed the growing crowd.

“Get back, everyone.” She marched into the street. “You’re too close.”

Vale and most of the onlookers readily obeyed. They walked several storefronts down to congregate before Fresh Fix Smoothies.

A man with arms covered in tats ignored the order. He sauntered into the street with his smartphone held aloft to film the scene. As if the demise of Vale’s hard work—all her dreams, gone to ash—were entertainment.

Vale withered the man with a look. Then she flinched as a torrent of water rocketed skyward. A team of firefighters appeared on the roof’s southern end. They were barely visible behind the wall of smoke colliding with the fearsome torrent of water combating the flames.

We’ll lose everything. She watched, transfixed. There won’t be anything left but a hollow shell.

The prospect sent a kaleidoscope of images shuttling through her. The tense set of her mother’s jaw when Vale informed her that she was leaving Philadelphia. The flawless summer day when she and her father purchased the building that would become the Crafty Cocktail, cementing their business partnership. Bo working in the bar’s long galley kitchen on Monday afternoons, experimenting with house-made infusions and rare liquors to create his unique cocktail blends. After a lifetime of feeling like second best, Vale latched on to the belief that, in Pittsburgh, she’d find happiness and a true sense of belonging.

An illusion.

Two more officers walked into the street; they stopped new arrivals from venturing too close. The tattooed man continued filming from a safer distance, his expression brimming with sick fascination. Her lungs burning, Vale ducked through the crowd. She felt seasick, unable to stand by helplessly while flames consumed the business that represented her first real success. Her only success after years of minor fumbles and larger disappointments.

Eyes blurring, she walked all the way to the corner of Twenty-Third Street. The air was cleaner here, carrying only a small trace of smoke. There was no one nearby. The isolation came as a relief.

Vale sank onto the curb and sobbed.

How late had Bo stayed at the Crafty Cocktail last night with his so-called friends? Six people had been hanging around with him at closing time. He’d been pouring himself a drink and flirting with a brunette embarrassingly close to Vale’s age. When the cook and the last of the waiters clocked out, Vale stopped arguing with her father. Whenever Bo was in party mode, reasoning with him met with defeat. She’d trudged out of the bar with her feet aching, disappointment slowing her pace.

Had one of the late-night revelers dumped a smoldering ashtray into the garbage? Or made a snack in the bar’s kitchen and left the gas stove on? It was doubtful Bo, playing host and pouring free drinks, would’ve noticed.

In the last four years, she’d discovered some upsetting truths about the father who’d drifted in and out of her childhood. Normally Bo’s good traits outweighed the bad, and she tried to overlook his worst habits. But now the Crafty Cocktail was aflame. All due to a fire that might have been avoidable.

Anger and sorrow vied for prominence in her heart. Pulling out her phone, she swiped Bo’s number. The call went to voice mail.

Hurried footfalls came from behind her.

“Vale!” Marci Dilonga halted abruptly at the curb. “Good grief, I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”

Marci lived in the apartment next door to Vale’s with her twelve-year-old son. An RN at West Penn Hospital, she worked many night shifts, freeing up daytime hours to ferry her son to his after-school and weekend activities. Sometimes she invited Vale over for an early dinner before they left for their respective jobs. With their nontraditional work schedules, they were both glad for the company.

Vale glanced up at her. “Has the fire spread to the other buildings?” She prayed that it hadn’t.

“I don’t think so. It looks like the other businesses will be spared.”

“Well, that’s something.”

“I can’t believe the Crafty Cocktail is burning down. It’s awful.” Marci peered down at her with concern. “Are you all right? You look shell-shocked.”

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