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62

If all those trees and shrubs and ferns around the Battle-Lake had been real they probably would have contained the fire to some extent, since it hadnt been that big a fire to begin with, and real plant life does contain some percentage of water. But they were plastic, all those green leaves and fronds, those brown stems and trunks, they were plastic, and they burned like blazes.

The desert wind is sometimes strong, sometimes light, but its constant. The wind wasnt particularly strong tonight, but it was very dry, and it had no trouble wafting shreds of burning plastic flowers and burning plastic leaves across to the cottages, which were made of wood.

In the chaos and confusion, Detective Klematsky tried desperately to keep hold of Max Fairbanks, but it was impossible, particularly after the lights went out. Max moved around in the increasingly smoky darkness, with that acrid petroleum smell of burning plastic, afraid he was doing irreparable damage to his lungs, when all of a sudden, seeming almost to appear out of the bedroom, there was a fireman in front of him, illuminated by the burning lake, dressed in firehat and smoke mask and heavy black rubber coat and heavy black boots. At once he grabbed Max by the arm, his muffled voice professional but urgent as he said, This way, sir. Lets get you out of here.

Oh, yes! Thank you! Out of here!

Clear the way, ordered the fireman, and they moved through the milling guards, while the crackle of the fire grew louder. The cottage roof had caught.

Somewhere in the darkened rooms, the crazed Klematsky was crying, Where is he? Wheres Fairbanks? Dont let him get away!

I have to get away, Max thought, blundering forward out the cottage door, clutching to the fireman who was guiding him by the arm. I have to get away, I have to find a phone and find a lawyer. I need a lawyer, two lawyers, maybe ten lawyers, to protect me from that utterly mad detective.

This way, said the firemans muffled voice. The fires spreading. This way.

Yes, yes, lets get away from here.

The fireman led him down the path between the cottages, and Max could see that two more of them had now caught fire. This whole part of the hotel complex would burn to the ground soon, if the fire department didnt get to work on it, didnt start hosing it down.

From far away, the sound of fire engine sirens screamed, coming closer.

The fireman led Max through the gate in the hedge, into the employees parking lot, floodlit at night. Thank you, thank you, Max babbled, as the sirens got closer. You saved me

Wait a minute. The fire department is still on its way, it hasnt got here yet. Who is this fireman?

Even as Max formed that question, and even as he instantly knew the answer, the false fireman spun around at him in the middle of the employee parking lot, under that garish white light. Grabbing for Maxs right hand, he bellowed, Give me that ring!

You! Max cried. Youre the one! And he whacked the false fireman across the head, which only hurt his left hand when it struck the smoke mask.

Give me that ring!

No! Youve ruined everything, youve destroyed

Give me the ring!

Never!

Max, inflamed by the injustice of it all, leaped on the false fireman and drove him to the blacktop. They rolled together there, the false fireman trying to get the ring, Max trying to rip that mask off so he could bite the fellows face, and Max wound up on top.

Straddling him. Winning, on top, as he always was, as he always would be. Because I am Max Fairbanks, and I will not be beaten, not be beaten.

You didnt expect this, did you, Mr. Burglar? You didnt expect me to be on top, did you, holding you down with my knees, ready now to give you what you deserve, kill you with my bare hands, rip this mask

YOOOOOOOOUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU!!!!!!

Startled, Max looked up, and here came Brandon Camberbridge, tearing across the parking lot, running full tilt and screaming like a banshee: You! You destroyed my hotel! My beautiful hotel!

Ive got him, Max started, to reassure the man, but it was Max that Brandon attacked, hurtling into him headlong, tackling him, the two of them flying over and over across the parking lot, away from the cause of it all, the false fireman, the burglar. The burglar! Him! Over there!

Max tried to say so, but Brandon was strangling him, pummeling him, beating his head on the blacktop. Max shrieked, and Brandon shrieked louder, and they clawed at one another, and Max felt himself blacking out.

Excuse me.

The calm voice stopped them both. They turned their heads, and the fireman was there, hat gone, mask dangling from the left side of his face. This is mine, he said, and reached down, and plucked the ring off Maxs limp finger. Thank you, he said, and straightened. Carry on, he suggested, and walked away across the parking lot, and Brandon grasped Max by the throat and screamed terrible words into his nose.

By the time many hands arrived to drag Brandon free and help Max to his feet and pound his back until he started breathing again, the burglar, of course, was long gone.

And so was the ring.


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