Kevin Helmold is a twenty-year veteran of the Chicago Fire Department and has spent his entire career as a Firefighter/Paramedic in one of the most challenging areas of urban America. He's stood witness to a panorama of violence and despair that few outside of his profession can match. Kevin's debut novel, "Echoes of Torment," is a story laced with examples from this panorama.
Kevin's interest in writing stretches back to childhood and to date has consisted of short story and extensive journal writing. With his four children well beyond the "baby stage" Kevin felt the time had come to take his writing to the next level.
The son of a Chicago Firefighter, Kevin has lived his entire life, including the last twenty plus years with his beautiful wife, on the south side of Chicago. His interests extend beyond family and writing to include the challenges physical fitness, summer time athletics, and poker playing.
After having completed a number of short stories, Kevin is currently working on his second book.
His literary interests range widely and he has read everything from Dostoevsky to Stephen King and from James Fennimore Cooper to Ken Bruen. Some of his particular favorites include the works of Ernest Hemingway, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Edgar Allen Poe.
ECHOES OF TORMENT
Carl pulled out of the driveway and pointed his truck at the growing light of another dank Chicago morning. The shock-jock on the radio did his best to get Carl's attention, but he heard nothing. He held his head low, only raising his tired eyes enough to see over the steering wheel. His mind deeply involved in figuring his odds. He wanted to get through today without absorbing another tragedy. It could happen. Every now and then the city gave him a break. He arrived at work hoping this would be one of those days.
He sat alone at his desk in the firehouse shuffling through paperwork, intent on avoiding eye contact with any of the guys. The jumbled chorus of camaraderie reached out to him from the kitchen. He sighed deeply and locked his hands over his ears. Not now boys, I just want this day to be over.
Carl managed to shut himself off from the noise. Just as he believed he might escape with a quiet day after all, fate intervened with a vengeance.
The alarm bells jolted Lieutenant Carl Braun to his feet, his pulse pounding. Three decades in this business and the adrenaline still rushed with each call.
A fire on south Haymarket. The address just two blocks from the firehouse.The digitalized voice repeated its information and the men scrambled to their rigs.
"I think we got a hit," one of the men shouted. "I could have sworn I smelled smoke out back a few minutes ago." Carl didn't doubt his man. Sometimes it just felt like the real thing. A dispatcher enters information into a computer and the speaker doles it out in the same monotone way, whether it's a false alarm or not. This one didn't feel false.
They were good at this game. Too good. Some of them had been acting like cowboys lately. Take your eye off the ball or lose your concentration for only a moment, and the result could be cruel. Carl knew this only too well. He'd found out the hard way on a number of occasions, most of the guys who worked in this part of town did.
The men twisted and turned in the cab of the engine, jamming into each other while struggling into their heavy gear. Not much time to get ready; they would be in front of the building in seconds.
Carl looked over his shoulder at Kenny Broderick, the youngest of his men. His face beamed with enthusiasm and anticipation. It always did during a run. So far Carl had been able to shield him from the recklessness of youth. But who would look out for Kenny after today?
The engine burst from the firehouse making a hard right onto 75th Street. Black smoke billowed above the trees. The men fought to remain in their seats as the engine swerved onto Haymarket. They drove through a thick wall of smoke, and the rancid cloud poured into the open windows of the rig.
Frank Taglieri stepped out of the rig and turned to Kenny. "How do ya like that kid? This one's trying to choke us right here on the street."
The fire roared through windows in the front and south side of the building. Flames stretched skyward in a wild frenzy, striving to invade the second floor. The lot to the south was vacant, always a good thing–no other buildings to worry about. One building on fire at a time was enough.
Branches sizzled from a tree in the front yard, dropping hot twigs onto the men as they frantically went to work. The whole neighborhood stood in a wide semi-circle around the scene, eyes gaping and filled with fear as the firemen entered the inferno.
Carl's men sprang to action without a word of direction. Frank led out the hose to the front door, while another pulled and straightened it. With everything ready, the engineer opened a valve and water rushed into the canvas-covered line making it jump and twist as it became as rigid as a stone. Kenny dragged the heavy supply hose to the hydrant.
Weighted down by ninety pounds of gear in eighty-eight degree heat, the men breathed hard and dripped with sweat before they reached the front door.
Brian Dunn pried at the flimsy front door with the pick of his axe until the wood around the lock splintered and broke free. Carl wedged the door open and the men turned their heads to avoid the smoke that flowed past them. The fire realized it had gained an additional source of oxygen and the flow reversed itself. Air pulled back through the door as the flames sucked in as much as possible. The men looked at each other in silence, recognizing this ominous sign. They had to move fast, had to slap this beast down while they still could.
The fire leaped in intensity, the heat they felt standing on the porch just a sample of the hell waiting for them inside. The beast taunted, gloating confidently in its growing strength. Almost in unison they reached for their masks and prepared to enter the battle. The beast beckoned, but didn't realize what it asked for. These guys weren't intimidated. They'd taken on tougher and knew this one would be child's play.
As the truck men raised the aerial ladder to the roof, Carl, Frank, and Brian masked up and crawled toward the source of the blaze. Frank dragged the hose line by the nozzle while Carl fed more hose as they advanced. They rounded a corner, only to be hit with the inevitable wave of heat.
Instinct implored Carl to back off, but tasting battle, he hunched lower and forced himself to inch closer.
Hungry flames engulfed two large rooms. The fire twisted and spun in a savage vortex, thrusting itself toward the broken windows in a life or death search for the precious air it needed to survive and grow. Drawn by the open door, the vortex sent groping fingers of flame over the crouching men's heads, the heat becoming unbearable as the flames moved in their direction. Carl watched as Frank braced himself for the incredible rush of energy he was about to unleash.
He opened the nozzle and over a hundred pounds of pressure caused the line to lurch. Carl had seen this release of pressure flip grown men onto their backs. Trapped air sputtered from the nozzle and a stream of water slammed into the inferno. It hissed like an angry python. The sudden temperature change caused the burning materials to snap and pop and shoot pieces of hot debris in every direction. Steam descended on the men, scorching any exposed skin.
"Goddamn it," Brian said. "This son of a bitch is a hot one."
They tried to escape the heat once again by dropping as close to the floor as possible. The cold water soon began to overpower the steam and the men slowly rose to their feet. Carl let out a sigh of relief.
The room, once brightly lit by its fiercely burning contents, went instantly black. With the fire darkened down, nothing remained but dense smoke and an utter blindness that no amount of sunlight could penetrate.
As Frank continued to work the line, Carl and Brian forced their way toward the windows, stumbling over furniture and rubble as they went. They located and shattered the remaining windows, increasing the openings to the outside and to fresh air.
Carl's radio crackled to life. He heard the battalion Chief through the noise and static. "What have you got in there, Carl?"
"Living room and dining room. Fires out. We're just starting to wash it down now."
The Chief barked out orders, "Truck 12 you can hold the roof–" too late, the guys had already cut a nice sized vent hole– "85 pick up your line, 51's got it."
Soon, the building filled with men pulling ceiling and opening walls, looking for places where the fire might be hiding. Frank had to open the pipe a few more times to extinguish remaining hot spots. They had to be thorough. Sometimes it didn't take much for a fire to rekindle. No one wanted to come back.
The men stood shoulder to shoulder, trying not to elbow each other while working. More men now than were really needed, but everyone wanted in on the action.
Even though the heat and most of the smoke had lifted, the air remained charged with residual toxins. Tiny fiberglass particles, ash, soot, and heavy dust, floated in layers through the air. As the smoke cleared, the evening sunlight streaked back into the building and illuminated each particle, making them glow like dancing crystals. In spite of the tainted air, the men had already removed their masks. Some lit cigarettes.
The fight may have been over, but everyone still rode an adrenaline high. Rehashing of the frantic events began immediately and continued throughout the overhaul and picking up process.
The guys from engine 85 stuck around to help re-bed hose. A chorus of laughter rose from the street. More than banter from a group of men who shared a unique brotherhood, they laughed at everyone who wasn't them. They laughed at the firemen who worked in the outlying battalions and only went to a couple of fires a year. It wasn't their fault; many of them wished they could work in this part of town. The guys were lucky to work on these companies. They all knew it, and none of them thought of giving up their spots anytime soon.
After a fire, Carl usually placed himself in the center of this group, joining in the revelry. Today, he felt content to stand aside and watch.
He studied each man in turn, trying to emblazon each in his memory, wanting to remember them at their best.
"Hey, Kenny, do they still have you on hydrant duty?" One of the guys from 85 took a stab at the new guy. "Haven't you ever felt that orange stuff up close?"
Kenny opened his mouth as if to say something, but looked away with a frown.
"Carl, what are you saving this kid for? Why don't you let him play with the big boys?"
Smiling, Carl dropped a fresh air cylinder into his harness and shook his head.
The laughter amped up a notch, but not truly directed at Kenny. Carl understood. He knew it was directed at any one of a million soft little men who sat all day in a cubicle, riding the same elevator, day after day, in his steel and glass high-rise. The only excitement he had to look forward to were his fantasies about the new receptionist, the one with the long legs and pert little breasts. He would let his mind wander, a dreamy grin on his face, only to look up and see the boss glaring down at him, wondering why the hell he wasn't pecking away at his keyboard, or holding a phone in his hand placing orders, or taking orders, or whatever the hell he was supposed to be doing. Who gave a shit? He wasn't doing this. He wasn't fighting dragons like one of King Arthur's Knights. He wasn't walking away from battle, his armor scorched black by the demons breath.
One day this soft little man would be eighty-five years old. He would sit in his overstuffed recliner, still thinking about the receptionist, but he would no longer remember why.
Carl looked at his friends and knew none of them would ever see eighty-five. Most would never reach seventy-five. Theirs were live now, pay later existences. The soft little man may never have to pay much, but then did he ever really live? Not like this he didn't.
Yes, these men, his men, were truly lucky. Lucky to be aged beyond their years. Lucky to have their bodies corroded from the inside out.
Carl thought the trick was to live the life and put off paying until the distant future. He'd always been confident he could pull off the trick, but lately wasn't so sure. Lately, he considered he might have already started paying.
"A novel from a fireman lures you into cliché, i.e. the narrative burns off the page, but it really does. A blistering powerhouse of a debut. Carl Braun, the hero, suffering post traumatic stress is absolutely compelling. The novel is also one of the best evocations of Vegas I've ever read. Rarely has a novel got it all…pace, compassion, thrills, style.…Continue
Posted on March 24, 2007 at 5:24am