Twenty minutes later, while waiting impatiently at a stupid light that wouldn't ever turn green, Sophie remembered that she'd been on a date when she'd bolted for her car. She activated her hands-free calling and said, "Call Bradley Kaspersky."
"Bradley Kaspersky. Cell phone. Dialing."
Seconds later she heard ringing, followed by, "You left."
"Bradley, I'm sorry. My office building is on fire. I'm driving there right now to meet the fire department."
"How do I know that's true? How do I know you didn't just run out on me?"
"Because I didn't. Because... I don't know, Bradley. If that's what you really think then this isn't going to work. I have to go."
She disconnected the call and tried to ignore the sense of fear and dread growing in her chest. If there was a fire, she could lose everything. Her inventory, her records, her pictures of CK that she kept on her desk.
Maybe it wasn't so bad, she thought. Maybe it was—
She nearly rear-ended the car in front of her. Sophie jumped on the brakes at the last second and stopped inches from the pickup's rear bumper. Up ahead, on her right, dark smoke rose in the sky. No—rose was the wrong word. It shot up, like out of a cannon, spreading maliciously, portending disaster.
She turned at the corner, made a left and three more rights before being forced to a stop by a barricade manned by two members of the Santa Clarita Police Department. She pulled over and jumped out of her car, grabbing her company ID and showing it to the officers.
"That's my company," she said. "I own it. What happened? Was anyone inside? Oh, God, the cleaners. Did they get out?"
The officers waved her past the barricade and pointed toward one of the firefighters. He looked more management and less like a climb-a-ladder-to-make-a-hole-in-the-roof guy.
At first she couldn't move, couldn't do anything but stare at what had once been a large warehouse with offices. Now there was only fire and smoke and heat.
Go, she told herself. She had to get going!
She rushed to the guy and identified herself again.
He nodded. "From what we can tell, the cleaning team discovered the fire.
They all got out safely. We did a search, as best we could, and didn't find anyone else. Do you know of any employees who work late?"
Sophie tried to focus on what he was saying, but it was impossible. She'd never seen a real fire before—not outside of the movies or TV. There was no way that two-dimensional image had prepared her for the real thing. The heat was incredible. Even from a hundred feet away, she wanted to step back, to get away from the climbing temperature.
Even more stunning was the sound. Fire really was alive. It breathed and roared and screamed. Her building put up a fight, but it was no match for the beast that consumed it. As she watched, the fire cried out in victory as a wall collapsed.
"Ma'am, is anyone working late?"
The question was screamed in her face. She tore her attention away from the flames.
"No. No one works late. Only me. I don't like anyone in my building when I'm not there." The cleaners were the exception. She trusted them. Plus, anything important was locked up.
The man's expression turned sympathetic. "I'm sorry. The building is going to be a total loss."
She nodded because speaking was impossible. Her throat hurt, and not just from the smoke and ash in the air. Her throat hurt because she was doing her best to keep it all inside.
Everything she'd worked for, everything she'd dreamed of, built, sweated over and fought for was gone. Just gone. Her mom had always warned her that if she wasn't careful, people would break her heart, but no one had warned her that a building could do the same.
She turned away and started for her car. The left side of her brain said she needed to call her insurance agent, and maybe some of her employees. Thank God her accounting records and orders were all backed up externally, but CK Industries wasn't going to open its doors anytime soon.
That was the left side. The right side of her brain only felt pain. First CK and now this. She couldn't do it. She couldn't lose them both.