Jack strode to the window and shoved it open. The temp hadn’t dropped much, but the wind had kicked up into high gear. Tumbling dark clouds churned up the sky like dark-gray wool blankets in a dryer, but not a single drop of rain fell.
“Precip?” Sam asked.
“Damn,” Ian muttered.
“Yeah.” Jack pulled out his cell phone and stared down at it as indecision warred with the need to know she was okay. Fuck it, he thought, and slid his thumb across the screen to access a blank text.
Just as he hit SEND, another window-rattling bolt hit, and then, not all that surprisingly, the fire alarm sounded. A two-alarm, meaning two companies would be responding. Not good.
“Why are the fires always at three in the morning?” Ian wanted to know.
“Karma.” Jack pulled on his clothes and shoved his feet into his boots. “For every time you’ve woken us up with those stupid late-night booty-texts you get.”
“You’re just jealous now that you’re wearing a ball and chain,” Ian said. “And how’s that working out for you, by the way? ’Cause you’re grumpy as hell, so I know you’re not getting any. I thought that was the whole idea of an almost-fiancé.”
“If you’re tired of Leah, I’ll take her off your hands,” Tim offered.
Jack ignored this and got out of the room first. Tim, knowing the last one out had to do the paperwork, swore, shoved Kevin off of him, and scrambled after Jack. They suited up, boarded the vehicles, and while heading to the scene, put on their air packs.
Each firefighter was assigned a very specific job, but that job shifted with each rotation. So sometimes Jack was the ladder, sometimes the engine. Sometimes he drove, sometimes he was tails. Everyone had their favorite position. Ian preferred driving. Emily liked the ladder. Some guys were just better at some jobs. Jack was good on the medicals with teenagers or old people, so he usually got that job instead of, say, Tim, who didn’t have the experience needed and often came off as an impatient asshole.
On the way, they all dove into the bag of candy that Ian pulled out of his pocket, laughing at Tim when he dropped his and Kevin inhaled it before anyone could stop him.
“Candy’s bad for him,” Jack said. “Don’t let him have any more.”
Tim turned to Kevin. “You hear that? Candy’s bad for you. Give it back.”
Kevin licked his chops and wagged his tail for more.
The joking halted on a dime when they got to the fire.
Just outside of town was an older residential section. Hardworking, lower-middle-class families lived here, in a row of apartment buildings close together and in need of repair. In this particular complex, there were three floors of units, most likely full of sleeping families.
And flames were shooting out the roof.
The other station had responded and arrived at the same time. So did Ronald. As deputy chief and fire marshal and the highest ranking official there, normally he’d be incident commander, but he passed this off to Jack, who did a quick walk around of the perimeter while the ladder was positioned to open up the roof and let out the hot gases accumulating in the upper floor of the building.
Until that happened, the danger could only escalate.
Jack relayed by radio that they had fire out two windows of the first floor on the south side, extending up into the second floor and the attic. A third alarm was struck, and the coordinated attack began.
“Holy shit,” Tim breathed, sounding awed as he stood still at Jack’s side staring up at the flames. “Holy shit. Let’s go! We’ll head into the—”
Jack caught him up by the back of his gear. Firefighters were taught from day one to never enter a structure alone, but it was usually the first thing an excited rookie forgot. “You know you’re on exterior with Emily.” At LHFD, they practiced what was known as the two-in, two-out rule. Anytime someone entered a hazardous environment, there was an equal number of personnel available outside the hazard area to rescue those who entered in case they got into trouble.
Emily and a pissed-off-looking Tim moved into position on the exterior. Sam joined the ladder team and headed to the roof. Jack and Ian would clear the interior and make sure everyone was out.
Forcing the rear door, they hit the stairs, standing at the top floor, doing a sweep, banging on doors, getting people out. Panic and fear always made people clumsy and difficult to maneuver. Jack and Ian moved fast and efficiently together, searching each apartment, working in sync with the other platoons by radio.
By the time they’d finished the floor, the smoke was so thick they were working blind, even with their self-contained breathing apparatus.
When they finished they started again on the secondary search, even if everyone was confirmed out, because sometimes people forgot that Johnny had a friend sleeping over, or that Uncle Joe didn’t work tonight, and so on.
They were on the stairs to the second floor when they heard it, the sound of the team on the roof. They used a pike pole to push down on the ceiling below, letting smoke and gases escape from above the fire. It was always a gamble working on a roof that may or may not be able to handle the weight of the guys, the gear, and all the equipment, and tonight the weather wasn’t helping.
But from one moment to the next, the heat and smoke lifted, and everyone in the interior took a breath of relief. They worked to finish clearing the building, most people happy for the help. Of course, Jack and Ian came across the one cantankerous old guy who wasn’t. Neither was his snarling poodle. The man was waving a baseball bat, yelling about his “constitutional right to remain put.”
“You also have the constitutional right to die here,” Jack said. “But do you really want to?”
The guy lowered his baseball bat. “Bum leg,” he admitted. “’Nam. Me and Killer here are just guarding our valuables.”
“What do you have that’s worth more than you and Killer?”
The old man scratched his head. “Well, when you put it like that…”
In the end, Jack carried him and Killer out, the six-pound poodle snarling and yipping in his ear the entire time, and Jack decided a one-hundred-and-fifty-pound pesky Great Dane with an eating disorder wasn’t so bad after all.
Then the radio crackled, and out came the words that struck terror in all their hearts.
“Northeast corner of roof collapsed. Firefighter down.”
Ian whirled to face Jack, eyes wide. “Fuck!”
Jack ordered Tim and Emily to enter and finish evacuating, and he and Ian fought the flames back up to the third floor, smoke curling around them, thick and unforgiving.
At the top, they met Tim hitting the stairs, carrying Sam. “Got to him,” he said.
“You were told to stay on evacuation,” Jack said.
“Firefighter down,” Tim said simply.
Jack held his temper because now wasn’t the time or place, but not following directions was a good way to get someone hurt, or worse.
And Tim knew it.
Sam had fallen through the roof, landing perilously close to an air vent. If Tim hadn’t gotten to him, he might have fallen another twenty feet to his certain death. He was bruised and bloody from a few fairly deep gashes, but mercifully nothing seemed broken.
Half an hour later, the flames were out and so was everyone who’d been inside.
They’d gotten lucky. Three hours from start to finish, and other than Sam, there’d been no injuries.
The building wasn’t as lucky. The firefighters had all done their best not to destroy more than was necessary but they’d opened up the place to ventilate it, breaking windows and tearing down sheetrock to do so. Checking for hot spots was always messy, but it was just too dangerous not to do it. If they’d left any embers smoldering, the fire could renew itself hours and hours later.
So when it was all said and done, the roof was completely gone, the building had lost three units on the top floor, and there was extensive smoke and water damage.
Back at the fire truck, tensions were high among the crew. No one had liked what Tim had done, but neither could anyone argue with the results.
Ian shoved Tim out of the way. “Move.”
“Jeez,” Tim said, staggering. “Take a Midol.”
“What the hell is your problem, man?”
“You. You’re my problem,” Ian said.
Tim looked confused.
“You didn’t follow procedures, and you ignored a command,” Jack said.
Tim didn’t look concerned. “I saved a guy’s life. One of our guys. You’re all pissed off because I got there first. What are you going to do, give me the shit jobs? Dishes? Send me to the senior center?” He laughed and shook his head. “Oh, wait. I already do all that. You’re just jealous because I got to be the hero today.”
“A hero wouldn’t call himself a hero,” Ian said.
“You guys are all assholes. Jealous assholes.” He climbed into the truck. “Where’s my candy?”
Kevin uncurled his big body from his sleeping spot in the driver’s seat and blinked at them. “Woof.”
Tim searched high and low, and swore. “Goddamn dog. Did you eat my candy?”
Kevin hunched over and yakked on Tim’s boot, a slimy mess that was all that was left of Tim’s candy.
By the time they debriefed, got back to the station, and deconned the masks and regulators and refilled the air tanks, dawn had broken and Jack was off shift. After a night like they’d just had, sleep would be impossible, no matter how tired he was. He had adrenaline coursing through him and needed…
Something. A hard run, a fast bike ride…
Too bad he had a pretend almost fiancé who’d gotten all his options cut off in that department. He and Kevin stepped outside the station to head to Jack’s truck, both man and dog stopping short at the sight of a woman leaning on it. Long, toned legs were shown off to perfection in low-riding jeans and leather boots, and the snug tank with an unbuttoned cropped sweater over it wasn’t so bad on her curves either. She wore a baseball cap, but there was no mistaking that auburn hair falling to her shoulders, lit to a fiery gold by the rising sun.