excerpt – ARSONISTS ANONYMOUS

ARSONISTS ANONYMOUS

Chapter One

The monster SUV behind her was riding her butt. Lu‘s tattered nerves frayed even more as she concentrated on the curving highway ahead. The VW Beetle beside her sped up and her tailgater zipped behind it and cruised on by. The red-faced, balding driver shot her a disgusted look and swerved in front of her only to stomp on his brakes. She jammed on her own, barely controlling her sliding tires. His chubby hand shot out the driver’s side window with his middle finger prominently displayed before he gunned his gas and sped away in a gray cloud.

Lu almost didn’t recognize the symptoms. It had been a while. The warm tingle at the base of her skull should’ve been her first clue. Then the headache building and heat stabbing into her fingers. The taste of ashes and smoke inside her mouth left no room for doubt.

Shit.

She curled her palms around the steering wheel trying to ignore the agony in her fingertips. This will go away soon. Accidentally incinerating an asshole on the road will not.

She’d better catch up to him. It would probably take about three minutes before he’d notice. Her ’89 Chevy shook as she pushed it above its normal cruising speed. She scanned the cars ahead trying to glimpse the massive SUV. Good. It was stuck behind someone else. A little more pressure to the gas and she gained some ground on him. Surely he must be noticing the flames by now.

She passed a couple of cars until she was behind him again. Smoke rose in his back window. The fire seemed limited to the last row of seats but with the amount of crap in his vehicle, she couldn’t be sure. She blared her horn and pointed to the side of the road. He ignored her. What the hell was wrong with the jerk? She honked again and he merely waved that oh-so-endearing finger at her.

Her car shuddered ominously and Lu realized she’d have to slow down or she’d have her own troubles to deal with. Hell, she’d catch the jerk when he finally realized the problem and pulled over.

About three miles up the highway she finally saw him at the side of the highway frantically throwing things out of the back of his vehicle. She stopped a ways ahead in case his tank blew up and walked back to his car.

“Need a fire extinguisher?” She held out the mini-canister before he made some smartass remark that would make her change her mind.

“What? Yeah.” He grabbed it and sprayed the white foam into the dwindling flames in the back seat. Then he turned the extinguisher on the smoking items he’d thrown by the side of the road. Once everything was totally enrobed in the creamy white foam, he stopped spraying and scratched his head. “What the fuck? Huh?”

Lu took the empty can from his limp hand and walked back to her car. He could call someone else if he wanted a ride to the next town. She tossed the extinguisher in the backseat so she wouldn’t confuse it with the new ones in her trunk, hopped into the driver’s seat and pulled away. No harm, no foul.

*

“Can I help you?” The grizzly older man with an impressive potbelly peered over the top of his tabloid.

Lu tried not to notice he wasn’t talking to her. Anyway, she didn’t think her breasts would answer the man. “I’m supposed to see Captain Reynolds?”

She glanced around the entrance to the fire hall. Incredible that regardless of the city, all fire halls seemed the same. The office board with the bright colored names indicating who was on shift that day, filing cabinets, the computers and fax machine. Because the occupants were always rotating duties, no one left any personal stamp on the general areas.

“He’s in his office.” A slight incline of his head indicated the general direction.

Lu steeled her back and walked past the guy. She heard his chair squeak and felt him eye her butt. Creep.

Captain Josh Reynolds. The plastic black-and-white nameplate was slightly off center on the dirty cream door. How could people obsessive about cleaning their bloody fire trucks be so blind to dirt on places that weren’t on their to-do list? She rapped sharply on the door. She hated people who tapped quietly on doors as if somehow it made them less intrusive. I’m outside your door, I want in, so let’s not pussy-foot around the bloody issue.

“Yes?”

She pushed open the door. “Captain Reynolds? I’m Lu Dawson. I’m starting tomorrow and thought I’d come by and introduce myself.”

“Lucinda Dawson. The whiz kid from Springfield, Oregon.” He didn’t sound impressed. “Have a seat. I was looking over your resume earlier.” He pulled a folder from the side of his desk and flipped it open.

Lu watched him glance over her file. If the guy outside wouldn’t have made the fireman’s calendar, the man in front of her could’ve been the main feature. Thick ebony hair framed his tanned, chiseled features. His dark brown eyes were fringed by long eyelashes most women could only dream of possessing. She glanced at the lush lips tightening slightly as he perused her file. Despite the perfection of his features, he still emanated a machismo that sent her hormones racing. She mentally shook herself and prayed she wasn’t drooling. This was her new boss, damn it.

She eyed the rest of his office to cool her libido. The room was clean with a well used but not abused oak desk, matching bookshelves filled with training manuals and reference books, and several pictures of the fire hall over the last century. Other than a signed baseball on his desk, Captain Reynolds didn’t seem to have imprinted much of himself on his work environment. Either he was new at the job or he was hiding something.

“You seemed to be well liked down there,” he said. “What’re you doing up here in Seattle?”

“I wanted to live in a city with more than just yogurt for culture.”

“Quick. And how—” The phone rang and he glanced at the caller I.D. “Excuse me.” He picked up the phone. “Byron Morgan, to what do I owe the pleasure of your call?” The sarcasm edging his words belied their sweetness. He listened for a moment and then he said, “Well, we’re all short-staffed since the last round of budget cuts … Uh huh. Yup 6 … Your guys said that was an accident … True … I’ll have Ace fax that report over to you later today … Same to you, Byron.” He hung up the phone and glared briefly at it.

“The only thing worse than an ex-smoker is an ex-fireman turned cop.” He turned back to Lu. “Back to business. I run a tight operation. We cover our community and assist with the neighboring Bellevue and Sea-Tac precincts when needed. We respond to medical emergencies to offer remedial care until the parameds show up. There’s no room for prima donnas and I won’t tolerate disrespectful behavior from anyone in this department. I expect to be informed if there are any issues, professional or personal, before it becomes a problem.” He sighed, as if dreading his next comment. “You’re the only female employed here at the moment, but with the number of sensitivity and interpersonal management training classes the entire precinct has taken, I can’t see that anyone would dare step out of line. However, if someone does offend you, myself included, I expect you to try to deal with it within the precinct before complaining to the human resources board or press.”

“Of course, sir.” Great, nothing like sensitivity training to make a bunch of guys resent you before you even start.

“That said, we don’t give anyone special treatment here.”

“I’m not looking for special treatment, sir, just a job.”

“This isn’t a job.” His eyes took on a hardened glint as he paused to emphasize his next words. “It’s a commitment.”

“Where I come from if you perform a duty and someone pays you for it, it’s a job.” Lu prayed her bravado would work. “I work hard and am totally committed. That’s why I’m here.”

“We’ll see.” He sounded less annoyed. Maybe her strategy had been effective. “The schedule is on the board in the hall. Check with Ace—he’s probably at the desk—for your gear and locker and I’ll see you oh eight hundred tomorrow.” He returned to his computer screen.

“Thank you, sir,” Lu muttered as she exited the office. Wow, this was one bitchy workplace. The women from the gym had nothing on these guys in attitude. She walked back to the guy at the desk now bent over a Sudoku puzzle.

“You Ace?”

“Yeah.”

“Lu Dawson. The captain said to see you for my gear and locker.”

“Lu? I assumed it was a guy.” He didn’t look too pleased with the difference.

“Well, you know what they say about assuming.” She smiled slightly to make it seem less of an insult.

Ace pulled open a drawer and rooted around. With a grumble he switched his search to the second drawer. “Shit.” He rolled his chair over to the filing cabinet and rifled through the files. “I think Archie must’ve taken his key. We’ll get you another one. You can use the supply closet for now.” He handed her a key.

“What about when someone needs supplies?”

“There’s plenty of keys for the cabinet.” His grimace implied it was a stupid question.

“So what’s the point of locking up my private shit if everyone else has keys to it?”

“Strangers, of course. And Captain doesn’t take kindly to swear words.”

“For one thing, everyone in this damn precinct is a stranger to me, and for the second fucking thing, you said the exact same word not five minutes ago.” Control your temper, Lu. This guy isn’t worth it. One accidental fire this week is more than enough.

“Look, young lady—”

“I’m a coworker, not someone you’re going out for tea with.” The words streamed out of her mouth before he could interrupt. “My name is Lu and we’ll get along a lot better if you treat me with the same respect you show your other coworkers. If everyone swears, I can curse with the best of ’em. If this is a sanitized precinct, I can play that game too. Just give me a few days to prove myself before you judge me as some fragile female foisted on you by some stupid equal opportunity bullshit law.”

“Huh, you ain’t no shrinking violet.” A slight smile crossed his lips. “I’ll get the locksmith in today so you should have a locker for tomorrow. Schedule’s in the hallway and your gear’s hanging in cubby five.” Again his head indicated the general direction.

“Thanks.” She found the schedule and copied down her hours. God, she hoped Ace wasn’t going to be indicative of the rest of the guys’ attitudes toward her. She’d worked so hard to pass the fire fighter entrance exams, then the fire fighter training, and she sure didn’t need a new bunch of insecure macho males trying to fuck her up now.

The gear in cubby five seemed fine with boots size 9 and a jacket and trousers that looked oversized but not outrageous. At five eleven she was used to towering over her petite female friends, but at the fire fighting training she had felt normal, if not delicate.

Tomorrow should be interesting. Fire halls were tight communities, so if her coworkers resented her, there wouldn’t really be anywhere else to turn. A quick last look at her gear and Lu turned to leave. There was no point worrying about if she’d fit in; she’d find out soon enough.

Driving back to her motel room, Lu stopped to buy some groceries and a newspaper. She’d have to look into a rental place soon and then figure a way to move her meager possessions from Springfield. She could’ve driven up with a trailer but she hadn’t trusted the Chevy. Maybe she could fly back and rent a small pickup truck? Aside from the family photos though, how much of that crap mattered? She’d never been one for nesting. If she had a TV, a microwave, and a bed, that sufficed. Then again, why pay for storage if she wasn’t going to use the stuff she’d left behind?

The small corner store was fairly well stocked. She grabbed some instant coffee, breakfast bars, and a prepackaged Oriental salad reduced for quick sale. She’d gotten so used to the healthy eating and excessive exercise that she’d almost forgotten what fast food tasted like. Then again, she couldn’t afford to let herself go here until she’d proven herself in the job; then she’d race Ace to the donut shop.

Thinking of donuts, she picked up a chocolate bar at the cash register. With reluctance she put it back. In one month she would treat herself with a binge at Godiva’s if she could just hold off until then.

The cashier gave her a sympathetic smile, the braces seeming inappropriate on her chubby but wrinkled face. “It’s difficult, isn’t it? I hate it that they put all the goodies where you have to look at them while you wait in line. It’s like an extra test of your willpower, and who needs that?”

“Yup.” Obviously the cashier hadn’t been winning the battle with hers. Be nice, Lu reminded herself, you’ve been there, too. Lu thought with a groan of the days she’d spend lounging around the fire hall with nothing to do but eat. It almost made her want to take up smoking again, but after the struggle to quit last time that was not an option.

“Have a nice day.”

“You too.”

CHAPTER 2

The animated chatter felt familiar as she entered the 3rd Precinct. The guys getting off their fourteen-hour shifts sounded wired, tired, and giddy. She took a couple of deep breaths, exhaling slowly. Okay let’s do it … She stepped into the common room and the conversation stilled.

“Hey guys.” The captain broke the silence and all eyes turned to him. “This is Lucinda Dawson.”

Lu was surprised all over again how good-looking the man was. She had the odd sensation of worrying about drooling and having a dry mouth at the same time. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had such a visceral response to a man. Not that it made any difference. She certainly wouldn’t date someone she worked with ever again.

“She’s just joined us from Springfield. Everyone introduce yourself. Make her feel welcome.”

After a flurry of names, Lu found she could only remember the obvious ones: Red sported an unruly mop of orange curls—if he’d been female she would’ve wondered if a dye job had gone wrong; and Marcus—who just looked like a Marcus with his barrel-chested, boxer-looking build. And Ace was there as well.

“Actually, I prefer Lu.” She smiled as brightly as possible that early in the morning. “I guess the main question is, where’s the coffee?”

Ace pointed to a large pot in the corner. “It’s not Starbucks, though.”

“As long as it’s strong and caffeinated, I’m happy.” Lu headed to the pot.

“So the internet is still on the fritz,” Red informed them. “Someone will have to call about that. We need more light bulbs and something died in the fridge.”

“I can look into the computer problem,” Lu offered quickly. She’d learned to volunteer for the easy jobs to avoid the yucky ones. And god only knew what the fridge was like.

“We have the phone number by the computer. I don’t know why the darn thing keeps flipping out of service,” a chubby guy piped in.

“So what happened with the two-thirty call, Red?” Ace sounded impatient.

“That was a good one.” Red had a garrulous laugh. “The guy’s drunk and stumbles home. He goes to enter the house through the back door, notices a bunch of smoke pouring out of the basement and calls 911. We get there in time to see the wife tearing a strip off the loser. Turns out she was doing laundry and it was just steam from the damn dryer.”

“So,” a shorter guy—maybe Gord…?—chimed in. “After we turn up, half the neighborhood is out watching the show. He’s not gonna be getting any lovin’ anytime soon.”

“The wife didn’t call to cancel?” Lu asked.

“Nah. She’d been in the sauce too. Who does laundry at two thirty in the morning?” Stubby laughed.

“I’m meeting Harv and the guys at Denny’s for breakfast.” Chubby, of course, Lu thought with a secret smile. “Anyone else? Red?”

“Can’t. The wife wants me home to watch the kid while she does some stupid class. It’s something she saw on Oprah, almost makes me wish she’d go back to watching the frigging soaps.”

The room seemed to increase in size as soon as Red left. Lu wondered how tall he actually was. She watched as some of the other men ambled out after him.

“I’ll get your key.” Ace walked back to the desk. “And the list of passwords for the computer. We used to keep it posted on the computer, but after we got hacked, we started keeping it in the drawer.”

“Thanks, Ace.” It would be good to have the computer to work on. Ten hours with a bunch of strangers made for an awfully long work shift.

“So why’d you leave Springfield for here?” Marcus sounded genuinely perplexed.

“You guys had an opening and I needed to get out of the cat rescue biz.” Lu hoped it wouldn’t be a day filled with twenty questions.

“We still have to do the occasional cat duty, you know?” Marcus grinned.

“No way. Seriously?”

“Sure. Old Mrs. Port’s precious Siamese regularly gets stuck. I think Mrs. P. puts it in the tree just for the attention.”

“That lady is a whacko, but well connected,” Ace concurred. “As the only hall in Springfield, you must’ve seen some action?”

“Yeah, we got our share of Christmas tree and couch fires,” Lu admitted.

Ace handed her a well-worn piece of paper, then wandered to the kitchen area. “Hope those guys didn’t finish off Margie’s banana loaf. Aw man. I knew I should’ve taken a chunk home last night.”

“Did you get a look around yesterday, or would you like an official tour?” the captain asked.

“A tour might help me get started faster.” Lu watched, fascinated, as he poured himself another cup of coffee. Every movement he made was precise, with no wasted energy. His physical containment added another dimension to his innately perfect looks. It was like watching a Ken doll in action – without the plastic hair, of course.

“Kitchen.” He pointed in the next doorway. “Through here we have the gym. Equipment’s good and you’re encouraged to keep in shape.”

Lu looked at the machinery; the elliptical, treadmills and bikes looked new while the rowing machine had seen better days. The weights were lined up neatly on a rack.

“Lockers and cubbies, you’ve already seen. Message board.” He stopped to emphasize his next point. “Always check it any time you enter or leave the station. Not getting the memo doesn’t cut it as an excuse.” He took the stairs two steps at a time. “Up here are the beds. I get my own room—perk of being captain, but I expect everyone else to try and get along. Pole. Washroom. The computer room.” He paused again to explain. “We used to have it in the common room, but there were too many noise complaints between TV watchers versus the computer. That’s it. Questions?”

“Nope. Thanks.” Lu could tell from his closed expression that questions were not actually welcome. She’d figure out things as she went along as usual.

After locking up her backpack, Lu went to look at the computer. It was relatively new and loaded. She lost track of time and place until she heard a dry cough behind her.

“What the heck are ya doing there?” One of the guys—damn, was it Bill or Bob?—shuffled uncomfortably behind her.

“I’m running some standard security programs to search for hidden viruses. They’re pretty common on these multi-user computers.”

“We got a firewall.”

“Yeah, I noticed. It can be cracked easily if you know what you’re doing.” Lu refocused on the screen. Not that she needed to; it would keep scanning until it got to the info she wanted, but she didn’t want to deal with whatsisname.

“Whatcha looking for?”

“Reports of unusual activity. I probably won’t figure this out for a while. Want me to call you when it’s done?”

“Uh, yeah sure.” The man still hovered. “You know, we usually call the computer people and they tell us to plug and unplug things until it eventually starts working again.”

“I used to be one of those computer people. Don’t worry. Your computer is in safe hands.” She smiled at him.

“If you want to call the company—”

“The number’s on the side of the computer, yeah. And I may end up calling them, but it’s always good to check that your computer hasn’t been compromised first.” She watched him closely as she added, “Certain types of sites can cause a lot of damage.”

“I’m sure you won’t find anything like that.” He backed out of the room. “I’ll leave you to it.”

So that was it. Lu smiled to herself. He’s nervous about me finding out where he’s been surfing. Hopefully it wasn’t anything really bad she’d have to report. Whistleblowers didn’t tend to last long in any job…

It felt good digging in the bowels of a computer. Lu was almost annoyed when the alarm tones shook her out of her own little playground. She closed the computer and raced for the pole. She couldn’t be the last one on the truck. As the newbie, that would be too embarrassing.

She beat Ace by mere seconds, but that was good enough. As they headed out she listened to the details on the P.A.: male, senior, suspected cardiac arrest. It was probably good to get a few test runs in before she had to rush into a burning building with her new coworkers.

With sirens blaring, they pulled up to a small bungalow on a quiet street. A woman waved frantically from the doorway then darted back inside like one of the little round birds flitting nervously around the lilac bushes. Lu followed the guys up to the house wondering who amongst them was the top medical person. They paused at the doorway waiting for her to enter. Figured she would be the one to deal with the obviously fragile wife.

“Ma’am.” Lu smiled encouragingly. “Where’s the patient?”

“He’s in here. He came back from his walk and then he started…” The woman pointed to an older man who looked decidedly gray. She pressed her hand to her mouth.

“Can you tell me his name, any medicines he’s taking, and any current or past medical conditions?” While listening to the wife’s responses, Lu could overhear Ace questioning the man who at least was conscious and lucid. She wrote down the woman’s comments and then watched Bill and Ace run through a few tests on the man. The tests confirmed it was a stroke.

“Do you have some coffee, ma’am?” Lu asked.

“I just put some on…” She looked surprised at the question.

“Okay, get a hot cup of coffee, put a good slosh of hard alcohol into it, and we’ll see if we can get your husband to take a bit.”

The woman hurried to the kitchen. From her quick departure, she appeared glad of the mission. Lu looked over at Captain Reynolds who was watching Bill like a hawk. Maybe I’m not the only new kid on the team? Lu could empathize with Reynolds’s frustration. Bill seemed to take inordinately long checking the man’s vitals. Reynolds pulled Bill aside and Ace took over.

After the woman returned with the coffee, Lu squeezed in beside Ace and held the mug up to the man’s lips. “Here, just take a quick sip of this.”

The man did then promptly sputtered some back. “That’s good. Just a couple more sips,” Lu told him.

“What the heck are you doing, Dawson?” Reynolds asked quietly, grabbing the mug back from her.

“It’s a stroke, right? So you give him hot coffee and booze to increase blood flow to the brain.” She checked, but the wife didn’t seem notice their exchange being otherwise distracted by a small collie trying to barge into the room.

Ambulance sirens wailed up in front, the doors slammed and two sets of heavy footsteps ran toward them. The room disintegrated into bedlam as the paramedics further filled the small room barking orders and taking charge. While they were loading the patient onto the stretcher, the paramedic at the guy’s head sniffed suspiciously. “This guy been drinking?”

“No,” Lu answered. “We just gave him some alcohol to get his blood to the brain.”

“Great, so that limits what drugs we can give him.”

“According to new medical data the best thing you can give him is alcohol, so unless you’re worried about mixing his drinks, I don’t think it’s a problem.” She smiled sweetly at the paramedic. “But now that you’re here, maybe we should get our butts in gear and get this guy to the hospital.”

Lu turned to the man’s wife. “We’ll leave you in these paramedics’ capable hands. I’m sure your husband will be fine.” She clomped out of the room. She heard the rest of her team follow, relieved they hadn’t felt the need to apologize for her actions.

Who’d have thought Springfield would be more current on medical procedures than the big city? Then again she’d had to present her former boss with reams of medical research before he’d accepted the practice.

On the ride back to the hall Reynolds let her have it. “What do you think you were you doing back there, Dawson? Have you even read the P&P manual? There are a set number of medical responses laid out in the manual and alcohol is not any of them. We’ll leave those kinds of remedies to the naturopaths and witch doctors. Our choices for a patient suffering a stroke or heart attack are nitroglycerin, if not previously administered, or oxygen if required.”

“Sorry sir, but it’s been proven that—”

“I’m not finished. You were also disparaging of the attending paramedics. That is unacceptable, Dawson. You never make a fellow rescue worker look bad in the client’s eyes. We have to work with these men and women on a continuous basis. There will be a note on your record and this will not be repeated.”

“Yes, sir, but—”

“What if the man has some other problem crop up and the widow blames us for nontraditional medical procedure?”

“Is it better to cover our asses or give the man the best treatment to decrease brain damage following his stroke?”

“You’re not a doctor, Dawson. I will not have a rogue player on my team.”

Oh shit, she’d gone too far. Lu backtracked quickly. “Yes, sir. I’m sorry.” God, was she going to get fired on her first day? Could she even go back to retail?

Captain Reynolds must’ve caught the panic in her eyes because his tone softened minimally. “You’d better be, because I don’t want to have this conversation again.” He looked out the window.

“Hey, Captain,” Ace hollered from the back. “We need some groceries.”

The captain let out an exasperated groan. “Okay, pull into the Piggly Wiggly, but make it quick. This isn’t a social call.”

Lu followed the guys into the store. It wasn’t long before she realized what the captain had meant. Within seconds Ace was chatting up the chubby cashier with the poufy bouffant and green eye shadow. At a warning glance from Reynolds, Ace ducked away to grab a few items.

Reynolds paid for the groceries and herded them back to the truck. Outside he turned to Ace. “Why don’t you just ask the woman out?”

“What?” Ace feigned innocence, but at Reynolds’s snort, he smiled sheepishly. “I can’t help it if the woman likes me.”

“Yeah. So get off the pot, Ace,” Bill chimed in. “If she already likes you, ya don’t have to keep dragging the rest of us in with you. Or are you hoping we’ll get a call while we’re here and she’ll see you running off to save the day?”

“I’m waiting for the right time, so back off.”

By the time they pulled into the station, Lu was sick of hearing about Laurel-Anne. The Piggly Wiggly episode seemed to be a regular installment in the ongoing fire hall soap opera. But at least no one was bugging her and there was no more discussion about medical procedures.

As Marcus backed the truck into the bay, Reynolds suddenly tensed up. While he didn’t express his feelings verbally, Reynolds was extremely chatty in his body language. Lu glanced around to see what had annoyed him. A tall, lanky man lounged on the cement stoop, soaking up the early spring sun. He stood as the truck passed him, his face breaking into a genuine smile. Lu stared at him, unable to look away. The stranger was attractive, but more than that, he exuded charisma.

“Hey, it’s Morgan,” Ace called out. With a quick glance at Reynolds, Ace stifled his grin. Marcus seemed happy to see the man as well. Morgan followed the truck into the bay, then greeted the guys as they jumped off the runner.

“What do you need, Byron?” Reynolds’ smile was cold.

“I have a couple of questions about that fire on Harding Street. I got the fax but there’s a discrepancy.”

“Sure, c’mon.” Reynolds started toward his office. He stopped when he realized Byron wasn’t following him.

“So how’s your nephew?” Ace asked. “Tell him I said, ‘Hi.’“

“Will do. Come for dinner on Sunday. Annie’d be thrilled to see you.” Morgan seemed to finally notice Lu. “I’m sorry, Byron Morgan.”

“Lu Dawson, new kid.” Lu shook his hand, feeling slightly uncomfortable as the intense blue eyes focused on her. The emotion changed to embarrassment when she forgot to release his hand.

“Byron?” Reynolds asked impatiently.

“Yup.” Morgan smiled and then loped off to follow Reynolds.

They unloaded the groceries before Lu once again commandeered the computer, ignoring Bill’s worried glance. Now she really didn’t want to find anything bad about Bill. She felt a little safer in the job knowing Reynolds already had one lame duck in the hall.

CHAPTER 3

The tones blared so loudly that Lu was halfway to the pole before she’d even woken up. Night shifts were the worst. She found it difficult to sleep with a room full of snoring men, and the few times she did, the alarm had gone off. She threw on her turnout gear, boots, and helmet and jumped onto the truck. Her body automatically followed the drill.

Meanwhile the speakers opened and dispatch droned out the details: a house fire on Baker Street; visible flames; reported by neighbor. Not good. If the flames were visible, the fire had obviously seated before the report came in. At least tonight she was on with the guys she considered the “A” team. Everyone had been through similar training, but in life and death situations, you wanted to be with people you could trust implicitly. Ace was a joker and not in the best shape, but he reacted well under pressure and could think on his feet. Marcus had the brawn and took orders instantly. And Red had the brains and the brawn. Captain Reynolds was cool headed and always in control.

She watched Ace hoist himself up on the truck as Reynolds commanded Marcus to “light it up.” It would be full lights and siren on this one.

Lu wished she had a mint; her mouth was so dry and gummy. Fear added to night mouth was not a good feeling. The streets changed rapidly from the business district, to apartment buildings, to separate bungalows and then to the square, modern mansions with three-car garages and security lights.

Ominous clouds of smoke billowed up to obscure the starlit night as they neared the target. Her stomach clenched in anxiety. The guys were silent for a change. Were they experiencing the same sense of dread? They’d discussed the adrenaline rushes associated with fighting fires many times, but it was taboo to express fear. They all knew fire fighters who’d lost their nerve, and didn’t want to join their ranks.

As they neared the building Lu’s muscles tightened up another notch. This fire was a bad one. Thirty-foot flames were shooting out the roof of the house, and several of the windows at the front had already blown. Obviously the building couldn’t be saved. She peered quickly at the neighboring houses to see if they were at risk. At first glance they appeared far enough away to be out of immediate danger, but assumptions were a fool’s game. The truck screeched to a halt and the team jumped to the ground.

“Marcus, Ace, set up the deck gun and wait for orders.” Reynolds sprinted around the perimeter of the building to survey the fire’s progression. Lu barely had time to flush the hydrant when her radio squawked to life.

“We got someone trapped inside. Red, Dawson, bring the Halligan Bar to the back ASAP.”

“Roger.” Lu radioed back and they ran to comply. Shit, this was going to be a doozy. The side of the building was clean. It looked like the seat of the fire was in the front. They found Reynolds at a small back door next to a boarded-up window trying to wrench out the slats with one hand as he called for backup. Terrified screams from within confirmed his report.

“Red, get the door.” Reynolds stepped back to continue his size up for the second crew responding. “We have trapped victims needing rescue at the rear of the building.” He listened to the answer then looked up from his radio. “Bellevue 2 are at least fifteen minutes away. We’re on our own ‘til then.”

“Got it.” Red shouted as the door frame splintered. They crouched to avoid the onslaught of smoke and heat, donned their air packs, and prepared to enter.

Lu got to her knees to follow Red as they crawled into the building. The hallway was dark. Their flashlights bounced uselessly against the smoke and grey walls. Red opened the door immediately to the right to reveal a bathroom. His flashlight highlighted the filthy floor and wastepaper strewn about the tiny room. The screaming came from further inside the house and they crawled forward.

Lu squinted, willing herself to see further into the hallway as she kept her hand within reach of Red’s back foot. Even as low to the ground as they were, the heat on her ears was fucking scary. Too long in the building would turn anyone into a barbecued crisp. The narrow walls opened suddenly to reveal a large room in front of them with rows of shelving units bearing the remnants of an in-house marijuana grow operation. Lu had never seen one before, but from the exposed wiring overhead, the ventilation and watering systems, she recognized it immediately. The plasticized covers on the windows had succumbed to the blistering heat.

Light from the fire provided some visibility, but the smoke was building up too fast. She blinked fiercely trying to clear her vision. A kaleidoscope of noises assaulted her ears. The roar of the fire sounded like a huge vacuum cleaner sucking everything into its path. The creaking and groaning of the building under assault competed with the high pitched screaming. It only seemed to be one person. A loud cracking noise made her dodge to the right as a shower of embers cascaded from above. They were running out of time.

Red continued along the right wall to a locked door. He raised the Halligan, using the adze side to pry the door open.

Lu sensed the danger a little too late. “No!” she shouted over the splintering of metal and wood. Red half-turned to her with a look of confusion. Lu reached out and yanked him backwards. He lost his balance and crashed to the floor as a fireball barreled past him from the gaping doorway.

The fire was accelerating way too fast.

Lu grabbed his arm to help him scramble to his knees. She could still hear the woman, only she seemed to be in the next room over. Red started back down the hallway, but Lu ignored him, instead crawling toward the woman.

“No. That beam is coming down!” Red grabbed Lu, jerking her back the way they’d come.

“The woman—”

A loud crash cut her off and she turned to see a burning hunk of beam from the ceiling had crashed to the floor where she’d just been. Red pulled her arm again and she followed him. They neared the splintered door. Reynolds’ voice on the radio ordered them to evacuate. As they ran outside Reynolds grabbed her other arm and the two men yanked her clear.

“Open up the deck gun,” Reynolds shouted over the radio.

“Roger.” Ace’s response crackled back. There was the air horn warning blast, immediately followed by a thick stream of water arching onto the top of the building.

“Break open the west windows to vent,” Reynolds pointed to the least damaged side of the house.

That was it then. Lu’s stomach twisted. Once they were blasting the fire with water, there was no way anyone could go back inside to rescue the woman. It’d be too dangerous. And the woman was too far inside for them to cut through from the outside walls to reach her. The wailing of Bellevue 2 truck and the ambulance cut through the cacophony. For a brief moment Lu wondered if the second crew could help get them inside. Then she realized that she no longer heard the screams. Shit.

With renewed vigor she smashed through the slats boarding up the window, but all she could see inside was smoke and fire. She heard an unfamiliar voice issuing orders over the radio. Obviously Bellevue 2 had a more senior commander on board. Reynolds had relinquished control.

Lu followed the commands and she and the others finally subdued the flames, but it felt odd—like she’d mentally left the scene. She heard herself responding to the radio, saw her body obeying, but her mind had shut down, unable to process the fact that they’d failed the woman inside the building. As she clomped back to the truck she heard the animated chatter and saw the ocean of yellow-clad bodies. None of it fully penetrated her numbed brain.

Red was sitting in the back of an ambulance with his leg bared and bandaged, and she trotted over. “What happened?”

“Just a cut,” he reassured her. “Nicked myself with my axe when I went down.”

“Thanks for getting me out. I, uh, freaked when we couldn’t get to the vic.”

“Yeah.” He shrugged. “We’ve all done that.”

“Medics taking you in or you coming back with us?”

“I’m good to go. I’m just letting Ace and Marcus pack the truck.” He slowly stood up and tested his leg. They walked back to their truck with weary waves to the guys from Bellevue.

A dull pressure engulfed Lu on the ride back to the hall. She felt the excitement and adrenaline percolating through the sheer fatigue of her coworkers. They’d all been on many calls, but the sense of having vanquished a raging fire never became ordinary. Each fire was different, with its own quirks and personality. And this one had been particularly unusual, from the grow-op equipment to the victim locked inside. And the spread of the fire had been unpredictable as well.

Another wave of remorse overtook Lu and she tried to forget the woman’s screams of fear and pain. They’d tried their best, but they couldn’t have stayed longer in that inferno. What must that woman have felt when she realized they were deserting her to the flames?

“Man, when that beam came down … I thought the whole damn building was gonna cave.” Red shook his head at the memory.

“Do you think the growers took out supports putting in the extra power lines?” Ace asked.

Lu tried to surreptitiously cover her ears. She didn’t want to hear them rehashing the fire. It was over, damn it.

“Could’ve. They did a real hack job on that house, and those rooms in the back—fuck.” Red glanced up at Captain Reynolds in the front, but the curse had gone unnoticed.

“Yeah, that was …” Ace looked uncomfortable as he trailed into silence.

“Do you think that vic was with the grow-op, or was there something else?” Marcus asked from the front seat.

Lu sat further down into her seat trying to mentally block out the discussion. Why couldn’t they just let it go?

“Don’t know. Stupid thing is, we’ll never know. You risk your life and sometimes you wonder, what for? A bunch of criminals?” Red added quietly. “What an awful way to go.”

Shut the fuck up! Lu wanted to scream. Instead she looked at the passing scenery as they wound their way, slower this time, back to civilization. It was strange how the fire hall seemed to represent normalcy and safety after fires demolished your sense of equilibrium. Her eyes were raw from smoke and the constant effort to hold back tears. Lu closed her eyes and counted her breathing. She knew they’d be scheduled for grief counseling tomorrow. It was standard procedure when a life was lost. Damn. Last thing she needed was some touchy-feely whacko making her break down and cry.

Relief flooded her when they pulled into the hall and she had to emotionally check herself to stop the tears threatening to erupt again. Lu wasn’t used to feeling this vulnerable in front of the guys and it sucked royally. Thankfully Ace and Red had finally shut up and they shucked their gear in relative silence. Reynolds was at his taciturn best with a quiet acknowledgment of a job well done before he headed to his room. What she would give tonight for the captain’s perk of his own room.

Lu climbed into her bed and hid with her face to the wall. After the others stilled for the night, she crept downstairs heading for the cavernous garage so she could be alone. On a leather bench, she sat staring at the massive truck, silently reprimanding her. She was not going to cry. People died every day: in car accidents, from horrendous diseases, or in fights. Even kids. She needed to toughen up. Death was part of the job.

A light touch on her shoulder made her jerk up in surprise.

“Sorry.” Captain Reynolds said, sitting down beside her, catlike in his physical containment. “Didn’t mean to startle you.”

“S’okay.” She turned back to face the truck.

“You alright?” The concern in his voice was her undoing. The most Lu could do was nod her head. But the tears she’d been holding back came coursing down her face. She hoped he wouldn’t see them in the darkness.

“Hey.” He pulled her in toward him with her face tucked into his chest. “You’re allowed to feel.” His hand stroking her back only made the fucking tears flow more.

Shit. Now her nose was running. Lu shook her head and pulled away. “I … n-need a Kleenex.” She felt her pocket before remembering she’d used them all earlier.

“Here.” He handed her a small package. Lu dove into it, trying to catch her runny nose before it was too gross.

Then the memory of the screams flooded back into her senses. God, here she was vainly concerned about a little snot. Her shoulders shook as she tried to hold back the sobs.

Again Reynolds hugged her and this time she let him. She felt so safe in his arms, his hands in her hair, his voice murmuring soft encouragement. She tucked herself in tighter to his chest and let his strength and warmth infuse her. He seemed endlessly patient as her wracking sobs dwindled into gulping hiccups. Her hand crept up his chest, feeling his muscles ripple against her fingers.

She looked up at him to apologize, but the look in his eyes froze her. She shouldn’t, but—Lu closed her eyes as his lips brushed against her own. With a moan she pulled his head closer and opened her lips against his. He answered with the same hunger, his tongue sliding in to explore her mouth. His hands became more urgent too, molding her to his body. The frustration, pain and fear all bundled into a massive need, pooling between her legs. She let out a small groan as he shifted to nuzzle her neck, his light stubble scratching her sensitive skin. His breath in her ear while he nibbled her earlobe sent chills of excitement down her spine.

Thunk.

Lu sprang back at the odd sound from above. Was someone else getting up? Her hand unconsciously wiped her lips as if to erase the kisses.

“My God, I’m—” Lu clapped her hand over her mouth. What had she done?

Reynolds jumped up and walked a couple of steps away. His hand raked through his hair. He exhaled loudly.

“I’m sorry, Lu.” His voice was low and precise. “I didn’t mean to—”

At least he sounded as confused as she felt. “Me neither. Um, can we pretend this never happened?”

“I promise you, it won’t happen again.” Reynolds jammed his hands in his pocket giving him an odd boyish look. “I don’t want to lose you. You’re a valuable member of my team, but if you feel uncomfortable … or that you can’t trust me …”

“No. I don’t want to transfer out, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Okay. Let’s go to—call it a night, and forget this ever happened.” Reynolds looked at her uncertainly and then turned on his heels and left.

Lu felt the urge to giggle and stifled it. At least I’m not crying anymore. She was an emotional mess. From despair, to lust, to laughter, this was crazy. And why did it have to be with Reynolds? He was her boss and, fuck, she was way too attracted to him. God, how would she face him again?

She crept back upstairs to her bed. At least tomorrow was her last night shift then she was off for four days. And this was Reynolds’ last shift of the week. They wouldn’t be on together again for at least five days. By then everything should be back to normal.

But what would’ve happened if they hadn’t been startled by the noise upstairs? Much as she wanted to deny it, part of her wished she’d found out. It’d been way too long since she’d been with a man and Reynolds was sexy as all hell. But no matter how hot, no sex was worth losing your job for.

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