Where Horror and Heroism Prevailed (continued...)
''I don't want to ride with Wick,'' Karen told her husband and his brother. She thought their father was the worst driver in the world. You know police officers. Think they own the road. But guess who drove?
Karen's knuckles were white from Centerville to Cincinnati.
When the Prughs arrived at Beverly, they were ushered down a long hallway. This is strange, Karen thought. Then, suddenly, they were in a huge room with a stage.
The Cabaret Room.
Onstage were comedians Jim Teter and Jim McDonald. Their schtick sometimes features a dummy of President Carter. The dummy's head is as big as a grown man's. Karen wondered: When does the real show begin?
Beast Leaps From Hiding
Nobody noticed the fire at first. It was like a movie where you have to wait to see the monster. Somewhere in a wall of the club's Zebra Room: an aluminum wire, a moment in time, a spark.
John Davidson was shaving when his drummer burst into the dressing room. ''The building's on fire,'' the drummer told him.
In the Cabaret Room, a young busboy appeared onstage. When he took the microphone from Jim McDonald, the comedian noticed the teen-ager was trembling.
''Everyone needs to exit the building,'' the busboy, Walter Bailey, said quietly.
Karen Prugh looked at her husband. Was this part of the show? She never heard the busboy mention fire. Others didn't either. Confused patrons stood slowly and began filing leisurely out of the room, some with drinks in hand.
Teter and McDonald went on performing. On his way past the stage, one patron cracked: ''Will the show go on when this is over?''
''We'll start again, I promise you,'' Jim Teter said.
''Will we have to listen to the same jokes?''
''No, I'll change my routine,'' Mr. Teter said.
But there would be no second act. The doors through which Karen Prugh and her family had entered the Cabaret Room half an hour before suddenly exploded open, banging against the wall. The monster was upon them.
It mesmerized some, the cloud of smoke-- froze them in place. In others it simply inspired fright: a sinking heart; a knotted stomach; the metallic taste of fear.
Karen turned to Terry. ''I'm scared,'' she said.
''It's all right,'' he told her calmly.
But as the man in front of them leaped up and began running frantically across tabletops, the lights went out -- even the exit signs -- and the screaming started.
Table cloths caught fire. A strange smell filled the air.
Karen Prugh struggled to breathe, but a sickening taste filled her mouth and her lungs burned. Before she knew it, she was swept up in the aimless throng.
Terry, standing behind her, put both arms around his wife.
''I love you,'' she told him. Then she blacked out.
Heeding The Call
Bruce Rath's scanner quit barking and spraying just long enough to erupt.
Bruce's eyes left the television and found his wife.
''Attention Southgate firemen.
''Fiiiire Beverly Hills.''
Fireman 51 rose from his chair.
Beverly Rath glared at her husband.
Things were tense in the little, gray house on North Fort Thomas Avenue. Bruce and Beverly Rath hadn't spoken much all day, and when they had, the words were brittle. Beverly had wanted to go up on the hill tonight, wanted to see John Davidson. But Bruce refused. He'd seen the lines of people waiting to get in when he went there working late for the phone company.
''It's always too crowded,'' he had said.
Now here she sat, stuck at home with a recalcitrant husband watching Saturday night reruns. Starsky and Hutch out to break up a mobster's ring. The fireman prefers adventure.
The scanner shrieked again.
''See ya,'' Bruce told his wife.
''Where are you going?'' Beverly said.
''Southgate's tones dropped.''
''Yours didn't,'' she said.
Beverly scowled. Watching her husband pull the suspenders of his bunker pants up over the new shirt she bought him, the beige one with the shoestring tie at the neck, she grew even angrier. He was going to ruin it. His new pants, too.
This thing -- it was probably just a brush fire like last week, when construction crews building I-471 had piled debris on the hillside.
''If you leave, I won't be here when you get back,'' she snapped.
Bruce jammed his feet into the boots he keeps in the closet by the door, and, heading out into the night, said:
He was being stubborn, and his wife didn't appreciate it. But up on that hill, Karen Prugh's life depended on the wide streak of obstinacy in Fireman 51.
The Fort Thomas fire department is on a quiet street lined with small businesses and prim homes. Bruce Rath hurried there and jumped on the first pumper leaving.
Hanging onto old No. 604 by the crook of one elbow, he wriggled into his fire coat as the pumper headed south on North Fort Thomas and turned right onto Highland Avenue. They sped west past houses in the twilight, past a savings and loan, past Gray's Deli, past a Gulf station and across Grand Avenue.
On the right, a Boron Oil station flew past. Then the old girls home. And then Bruce Rath saw it: a whisp of black smoke.
They descended the hill and turned left onto U.S. 27, losing sight of Beverly Hills for just a moment as they passed Evergreen Cemetery. Then, rounding the bend, they saw their destination: the doomed supper club, belching thick, black smoke against the darkening sky.