Charley’s voice behind his facemask was tense with worry. “Hurry it up, will ya? This place is coming apart.”
“Hang on a minute?” Eldon said, pulling off his gloves and stretching out a hand, felt for a pulse. “She’s alive, Charlie, and still breathing. Come on sweetheart, we’re here to help you. You’re safe now. Come on out.”
“Oh, fer Christ’s sake, get off your damn knees and we’ll flip up the bed and pull her out.”
The two men hoisted the heavy ornate bed frame into the air and Eldon plucked her out from under the bed, put a small mask on her face and adjusting the air said, “She’s breathing.”
“Then let’s get you out of here,” Charley said, shoving his friend through the door.
Even frightened and exhausted as she was Mai-Ling’s heart soared at the gentle treatment. He’d called her sweetheart and put an oxygen mask on her face and tucked her close to his chest while he ran down four flights of stairs through the smoke and fire, and out into the fresh, clean air. This man was everything she ever dreamed of; strong and gentle and kind and he carried her as if she didn’t weigh a good one-hundred and sixty-five pounds―okay, maybe a bit more. She’d been eating because she was stressed, and certainly she’d been stressed the last couple of weeks, hadn’t she? And it wasn’t exactly like she could go to the gym, now could she? Besides, firemen were supposed to be fit, and this one certainly had muscles.
Outside, residents anxiously crowded around the two firemen.
“Any sign of the old woman on the top floor?”
Mai-Lin lifted her head to see who was talking. Old woman? Are you talking about me? I’m barely past fifty and everyone at the casino says I look much younger than … Ah, I keep forgetting about the potion. Of course they don’t recognize me. Mai-Lin felt a happy giggle in her chest. Firemen don’t call just anyone sweetheart. The potion worked!
“You found her in the top apartment? Someone up there has insomnia. I know because I hear them pacing the floor all night.”
You’d pace too if you were being hunted by a killer.
“Insomnia? I hope it’s not catching, I have an early morning start for a new job.”
“I wish I had the room to pace. That apartment is bigger than my one bedroom.”
“Or my studio.”
“Did she die in the fire?”
Another voice whispered, “Was she … dead?”
Dead? Ha! This is going to be good. It they don’t know who I am then neither does Roland Chieu.
Charley signaled for quiet. “We didn’t find an old woman, but we did find this small girl hiding under the bed.”
Mai-lin preened. Yes, I’m younger and thinner now, prettier too, thank you very much.
Eldon removed Mai-Lin’s O2 mask, and smoothing the long hair out of her face, said, “Do any of you know if this is her dog?”
The group leaned forward to inspect her and Mai-Lin gasped, her lower lip trembling. Did he just call me a dog?
“No, sorry,” one of the tenants said. “The apartment owner does not allow pets,”
Pet? I was always petite, but no one ever called me Pet.
A woman nodded in agreement. “Probably smuggled into the apartment. Can’t do that with my birds. I had to swear I would leave my beloved budgies with my sister.”
Budgies? Dirty things, birds. And all that squawking? Not in my building!
“That’s right,” another said, “No pets of any kind. And our rent went to a P.O. box addressed to a Mrs. Lee. Perhaps she recently rented the apartment to someone?”
Why were these people staring at her as if she were a foreigner? Didn’t her family come from the same province as her tenants?
“Then where’s the tenant?” Eldon asked. “And why isn’t he, or she, here to claim this little girl?”
A young woman reached out and gently stroked Mai-Ling’s head. “Maybe she’s hiding.”
“Why would she do that?” Eldon asked.
“There’s a rumor she took in illegal immigrants,”
A click of their tongues said exactly what Mai-Lin was thinking..
Of course I wouldn’t allow illegal immigrants in my building. I’m a business woman, not a charity.
“Oh, look. Her ears are like signal flags, up and down as if she has an opinion on our conversation. Cute little thing. What do you think she is, Maltese?”
Maltese? I’m Chinese, as you all know, you cretins!”
The man glared at Mai-Lin. “That’s gratitude for you, growling at us when we’re only trying to help. As for her pedigree, I don’t think she’s a Maltese. They are all white. This dog has brown ears and brown spots. Perhaps a King Charles Spaniel?”
Someone else said, “No, not King Charles. Their ears are floppy and as you can see, her big ears stand up.”
Big ears? Next they’re going to say I have a big nose. I must really be ugly.
“I see what you mean about the ears looking like signal flags,” said another. “She is very attentive to our conversation.”
Eldon put up a hand. “Regardless of her breed, she appears to be a purebred of some kind, and someone is missing this pretty little female dog. If she doesn’t belong to any of you, would one of you consider taking her in until we find her owner? There might be a reward.”
Huh, at least the fireman think I’m pretty.
“A reward wouldn’t help me,” someone said. “Everything I owned went up in the fire. I’ll be lucky if I get to sleep on a relative’s couch and there’s no room for a pet.”
“I’m never going to find another place this close to the city. Or this cheap.”
There were echoes of agreement.
“The Red Cross will be here in a few minutes,” Charley said, “they’ll help with shelter and any immediate supplies you may need. As for the dog, she’ll have to go to the pound.”
Mai-Ling, looked from one man to the next and opened her mouth to shout down this nonsense, but the only thing that came out was a hoarse dog-like growl.
Feeling light-headed, she giggled. It must be all the smoke I inhaled.
She couldn’t make herself heard much less understood, not with a throat sore from smoke. Perhaps they should take her to the hospital? She looked up at the kind fireman holding her in his arms hoping she could make him understand that a hospital was the better choice.
Eldon spoke to his partner. “Well, she’s not wearing a collar and I don’t feel a micro-chip anywhere on her body. I guess we could put out a notice to the local news people. She’s some kind of purebred and someone will come to claim her.”
Mai-ling looked up at her savior with moist, brown eyes and whimpered. He was the perfect person to hide her from her husband’s second man. If only she could convince him to take her to his home where she would be safe from Roland Chieu.
“You aren’t thinking of taking her home, are you, Eldon?”
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t you tell me your apartment doesn’t allow pets?”
“Oh, yeah, I guess … “
Charley reached out to pat her head. “Then take her to the pound and let them find the owner of this chubby little bitch.”
The last of Mai-Ling’s patience finally snapped. I may be a bitch, but I’m not chubby!
Charley snatched back his hand. “Son-of-a-bitch! She bit me! Tell the pound she’s a bitter and they’ll put her down.”
Mai-Lin retreated as far under Eldon’s arm as she could and looked for reassurance that he wouldn’t allow any such thing. After all, he was the one who saved her, the one who held her to his chest and braved the flames to take her to safety. Surely he didn’t mean to take her to the dog pound.
Eldon gave her a gentle pat. “A shelter would be the first place your owner would go to look for you, and I sure can’t keep you.”
Mai-Lin Song had managed to buy her freedom from a hateful husband, found a way to escape her fate at the hands of her husband’s second man, and now everyone thought she was a dog? What kind of horror had she been dropped into? She looked down at the claws peeking out of white fur, wriggled one paw and then the other.
Ai-eeh! I am a dog! The world started to spin and everything went black.
END of Chapter Five…but wait, there’s more to come! Stay tuned.