Chapter 1

“Seriously? What’s next, chief? A cat in a tree?”

Linc smirked at the rookie slumped in his passenger seat.

Skyler—better known as New Guy despite her gender—was fresh off a bachelor’s in fire science from Purdue University, and like all rookies, she was restless when it came to the mundane grunt work of fire station life.

“You’re breaking a cardinal rule, rook,” he warned her. “Never even think the word s-l-o-w. We’ll all regret it.”

He checked his speed as he merged onto the highway, leaving Benevolence behind them. The V8 of his SUV, the cherry red chief’s vehicle, rumbled appreciatively as it opened up.

“I just expected there to be more action,” she complained. “Instead we’re running to Home Depot for extension cords.”

“It can’t all be four alarms and water rescues,” Linc pointed out, tapping out the beat in time with the radio. He was grateful for that. Earlier in his career he, too, lived for the action of a structure fire, the excitement of a crash with entrapment. But with time, experience, and considerable wisdom, Fire Chief Lincoln Reed had grown to appreciate the other side of being a firefighter. Training and community education. Fire safety plans. Outreach. They were just as important as the calls.

Sure, the paperwork sucked. But it had a purpose. And he could appreciate that.

It was a beautiful windows-down and sunglasses-on kind of day. Summer was butting up against the encroaching fall, daring the next season to steal its thunder.

“Oh, shit. What the hell is that?” Skyler said, pointing ahead as a shower of sparks shot up against the concrete barrier a few hundred yards ahead of them. A sea of red lights appeared as vehicles slammed on their brakes, skidding and sliding.

“Fuck,” Linc muttered, slowing down and yanking the wheel hard to the right. “Hang on.”

He punched the switch, and lights and sirens cut through the eerie post-crash silence. On the shoulder, he swerved around an orange construction sign and stomped the gas, flying past the stunned occupants of stopped cars.

A cloud of black smoke rose up in front of a jackknifed tractor-trailer truck. He could smell it. Burnt rubber, spilled chemicals, and fire.

“That’s not good,” Skyler said, already slipping out of her seatbelt.

“Call it in and kill the sirens,” he ordered. Slamming on the brakes, he threw the SUV in park and killed the engine.

“We’ve got a multi-vehicle collision on Highway 422, mile marker thirty-three,” he heard her saying into the radio as he jumped out of the SUV. “Benevolence FD chief is on-scene.”

He popped the hatch and dragged out his turnout gear. Adrenaline was his friend, keeping his movements quick and efficient. In seconds, he was geared up and heading in the direction of calls for help while he stuffed his gloves in his pockets.

“Hey, man! What can I do?” the driver of a tractor-trailer truck yelled from his cab window.

“Get some of your 18-wheeled pals to block traffic on both sides,” Linc called back. They’d need to land the helicopter on the other side of the highway.

The guy threw him a salute.

“Get the kit,” Linc yelled to Skyler when she popped out of the passenger side.

A woman, early fifties, with blood from a cut on her forehead dripping onto her bright blue tank top, walked dazedly toward him. She looked like she’d just come from a yoga class.

That was the kicker about this job. It was a constant reminder that life could change on a dime. People never knew when their everyday lives were going to come to an unceremonious halt. When their schedules and to-do lists would be interrupted by something that changed everything.

“Ma’am, if you can walk, I need you to move to the side of the road,” he said, squeezing her shoulders. “Can you do that?”

She nodded slowly.

“I got her.” A man in a business suit limped toward them. His shirt was covered in whatever he’d been eating at the time of the crash.

“Take her over there, as far away as you can get from the smoke. Grab anyone else you can,” Linc ordered.

He didn’t wait to see if they did his bidding. There were more people, climbing out of mangled metal. Broken glass crunching under feet that hadn’t intended to walk through disaster today. He reached the rear of the truck, still shouting for everyone to get clear when the heat hit him head-on.

Two cars—a Jeep and the sedan in front of it—were smashed between the eighteen-wheeler and the center divider. The engine compartment of the Jeep was engulfed in flames.

“Oh my God. Oh my God. He just slammed into us.” The girl in the Jeep, she couldn’t have been more than twenty, crawled out of the back, shaking so hard her teeth chattered.

“Anyone else with you?” Linc asked.

“N-n-n-no. I couldn’t stop. It happened so fast. I didn’t mean to hit that car.”

“Honey, I need you to get to the side of the road,” he insisted.

“I should see if they’re okay,” she said, pointing a trembling finger at the sedan. “N-n-no one got out.”

Skyler jogged up, breathless with excitement.

“Take her,” Linc said. “Shock. Start triaging the others. Keep them out of the hot zone.”

“On it,” she said calmly. She was shaking too, but it was a different kind of physiological reaction. Adrenaline meeting preparation. “Come with me, miss.”

He debated his approach to the sedan. The cab of the tractor-trailer was smashed into the barrier, blocking the access from the front. The fire made rear entry impossible.

“Only one way in,” he muttered, stripping off his air tank and helmet and dragging on his gloves. He slid under the belly of the low trailer. Fluids bled over the asphalt, puddling and pooling, slipping over his gear. It was a good goddamn mess.

The heat was getting worse by the second, and he paused for a second to adjust his hood.

His heart beat steadily in his ears as he crawled out from the undercarriage.

“Someone help us!”

Linc wedged himself into the space between the sedan’s rear door and the trailer. The driver was awake and panicking behind the wheel as the flames from the Jeep were licking at the trunk of the car.

There were two bystanders leaning over the concrete barrier, yanking in vain at the driver’s side door. But there wasn’t enough clearance.

“Fuck me,” Linc muttered. Nothing was ever easy when it came to life and death.

“Help us!” The woman, tall and dark, was hanging over the barrier, a half dozen expensive bracelets shimmering on her wrists as she pulled on the bent frame of the door. She reminded him of Wonder Woman. The man helping her was five-foot-nothing and couldn’t have weighed more than a buck twenty-five. He had a Tweety Bird tie on. Linc would put five bucks on it being a clip-on.

“You okay, buddy?” Linc asked the driver, ducking his head into the open window of the back seat. The guy had been enjoying the same windows-down drive only moments before it all went to hell.

“My leg hurts like hell, and I’m stuck, man.”

He was a big man whose bushy white mustache was turning pink thanks to a bloody nose from the airbag. Sweat matted his hair.

“We’re gonna get you out of here, okay? Just hang in there,” Linc promised.

There was a loud pop, and a metal projectile exploded from where the trunk had been.

“Holy shit! What was that?” Tweety Bird yelped. Wonder Woman cringed but never slowed her fruitless pulls on the door.

“Trunk hydraulic bursting,” Linc said, shimmying through the back passenger-side window into the back seat. The heat was a hell-like inferno.

“Mister, I don’t know if this is such a good idea,” the driver said, his voice shaking. “I might not make it outta here, and I’d sure feel bad if you went tryin’ to save me. I’m seventy-two. You’ve got more ahead of you than I do.”

Linc gripped the man’s shoulder. Sometimes firm physical contact was the quickest reassurance. “It’s gonna be fine. Just do what I say, and we’ll both be having cold beers tonight.”

The heat in the car was unbearable. But Linc ignored it. He aligned his body to create a barrier between the encroaching fire and the driver’s seat. His turnout gear would protect him and the driver, for the next few minutes at least.

“What’s the game plan, fire guy?” Wonder Woman demanded as he stripped off his gloves and dug through his pockets.

“Can’t take him out through the door. I need you to find fire extinguishers and someone who’ll use this glass breaker,” he said, pulling the tool free of his pocket. “We gotta move fast.” The windshield was the worst possible egress. The glass was stronger than the windows and shatter-resistant. It would take more than a miracle to get the driver out that way.

She grabbed the glass breaker, looked at the driver, and bit her lip.

“Honey, you best get going. It’s gettin’ hot over here,” the man said, squeezing her hand.

She squeezed right back and glanced over her shoulder. “Hey, yo! I need a hero glass breaker and a fucking fire extinguisher now! You, go scavenge,” she said, giving Tweety Bird a shove before turning back to the driver and gave him a serene smile. “There’s no place else I need to be. So I’m just going to hang out here with you until we get this figured out. Count me in for one of those cold beers.”

Jamming his hand into another pocket, Linc produced a seat belt cutter and reached around the front seat to grip the belt. “I’m gonna cut through your belt while we work on an escape route.”

“Okay,” the driver wheezed.

“What’s your name, sir?” Linc asked, hooking the blade of the cutter over the belt.

“Nelson,” he said. “Nelson. My wife. I got her flowers,” he said.

Linc gritted his teeth and tightened his grip on the seatbelt as he started to saw through it. The scent of roses hit him, and he spotted the bouquet on the passenger seat. White and pink.

“It’s her birthday,” Nelson said weakly.

“They might be a little wilted by the time you get them to her, but you will,” Linc promised.

Fuck. The angle made it nearly impossible. Instead of a clean cut, he was sawing through thread by miserly thread. Sweat was running freely, turning his gear into a damn sauna.

“I got you some guys,” Wonder Woman said, her eyes tearing with the smoke. Sweat matted her hair down, sticking it to her forehead. “One of them had a glass breaker in his car.”

Linc loved a prepared bystander.

“Where do you want us?” Two men appeared on the other side of the barrier. They each held up their tools.

“Climb over onto the hood,” Linc ordered. “We’re going through the sunroof.”

“Can we get a blanket over here?” Wonder Woman shouted at the gathering crowd. “And where are my fire extinguishers? The rest of you all need to get the hell back!”

“You’d make a great incident command,” Linc told her.

“Honey, I’ve got five kids at home. I can command the hell out of any incident.”

“Listen, you all give this two minutes. If we’re still not out by then, you need to get clear,” Linc ordered.

“Three minutes,” she repeated.

A blanket was produced and draped over Nelson’s head to protect him from the glass.

Time disappeared. There was only the intensity of the heat and Linc’s focus. The seatbelt gave way finally, the belt cutter slipping and nicking his hand. He heard the telltale whoosh of single-use fire extinguishers, the hiss of flames. But it was still damn hot. He was still burning. The good Samaritans attacked the sunroof, and chips of glass rained down in a shower.

“Thank fucking God,” he muttered, stashing the cutter back in his pocket and pulling on his gloves. It was too late. He already felt the blistering on his right hand. But what was a firefighter without a few burns to show off?

“Holy hell, chief,” Skyler’s pretty face appeared in the open sunroof.

“It’s about time, New Guy,” Linc shouted. “Nelson, buddy, are you ready to get the hell out of here?”

The heat was beyond oppressive. His muscles felt like they were liquifying. Black smoke filled the vehicle and poured out of the open windows.

“But I’m having such a nice time,” the man joked, coughing and sputtering.

Linc grinned. “Okay. On the count of three, Wonder Woman, you and I are going to heave Nelson here up and out. Rookie, you and your Good Sams are going to pull him out and get him across the barrier. And then everyone is going to run like hell. Copy?”

“Copy!” They shouted it as if they’d been training together for years instead of a fate-dealt group of strangers trying to save a life.

The back window shattered behind Linc as the flames licked closer. “Now!” he shouted.

Still using his body as a shield, he reached around to lever Nelson up out of the seat. His weight, the angle, the twisting. He felt the pop in his right shoulder and welcomed the pain as distraction from the misery of hell heat. They heaved and pushed and pulled together, grunting and shouting.

It sounded like labor. Like birth. The back seat was on fire. Flames were eating the upholstery, the fabric on the roof. Time was up.

And then Nelson was disappearing through the sunroof. Linc sent up a prayer of thanks as the man’s loafers vanished and the distinct sound of cheers reached him over the lick and crack of the fire.

“Get out of there, chief!” Skyler yelled, reaching down for him.

He gave her his left hand and, gasping for oxygen, let her pull him toward the air, the sunshine, the blue sky that was blotted out with thick, black smoke.

“Hang on!” Reaching down with his bad arm, Linc clutched the flowers. “Okay. Get me the fuck out of here.”

“Never pegged you for a romantic,” Skyler said through gritted teeth as she hauled his two-hundred-fifty pounds of muscle and gear through the roof of the car.

They landed on the hood, and then she was shoving him over the barrier, and they were both falling. There was a loud pop behind them as one of the tires exploded.

Hands. What felt like a dozen of them grabbed him, pulled him up. They were surrounded by angels. Bloodied, bruised angels. Everyone crying and laughing at the same time. A girl in a softball uniform. A woman in a pencil skirt with bloody knees. A pizza delivery guy. A truck driver in a Jimmy Buffet shirt. Black. White. Rich. Poor. They came together to defy death.

Linc’s shoulder sang, his knuckles throbbed. But he grabbed Skyler’s arm. “Everybody move!”

There were sirens. An entire opera of them. Help was coming.

They moved as one, snaking between the stopped cars to the other shoulder of the highway. Skyler’s braid was no longer neat and tidy. Black flyaways escaped from all angles, and her dark skin was smudged with soot and dirt. She grinned at him.

“Not a bad day’s work, chief,” she said.

Nelson, arms draped over the shoulders of the glass-breaking golfers, limped ahead of them. Linc stole a glance over his shoulder, and just like that, the gas tank finally blew, shooting orange flames thirty feet into the air.

The flowers clutched in his hand were wilted and browning. But they’d survive, just like the man who’d bought them.

No. Not a bad day’s work at all.