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Shift's End (Smoke & Bullets) by A.R. Barley (1)

Chapter One

Jack had heard all the theories. Fire was like a freestyle jazz record that would give up all its secrets if you could just listen hard enough. It was like a complex math equation that a man could spend his lifetime trying to solve. It was a tidal wave...a puzzle...a savage dog ready to bite at any passerby or be brought quickly to heel.

That was all bullshit.

Fire was a lover, staggeringly beautiful and entirely incomprehensible, exactly like his ex-wives. Of course, unlike his ex-wives, who’d given up on him after only a few years, fire had been a constant in his life, from the bite-size bonfires he’d built in the scouts to the first fire he’d ever fought in the FDNY, kicking down the door at an Inwood bodega with an illegal cigar bar in the back. These days he knew better than to get too close.

That didn’t stop him from holding his breath as he watched Luke Parsons and Troy Barnes enter an upscale clothing store with an electrical fire in the back. Luke and Troy were two of the best firefighters he’d ever worked with. They walked through doors when sane people were running in the other direction, evacuating burning buildings and rescuing everyone from little old ladies to idiotic teenagers who thought everything could wait until they got to the end of their video game level.

“Excuse me!” A whip-thin man with cat-eye glasses glared at Jack. His clothes were snazzy, a sweater that probably cost more than everything in Jack’s closet and a pair of pants that had definitely been tailored to fit his body. Jack made it a policy to not look at men while he was on the job, but there was something about the way the stranger held himself...like every inch of him was on display, and if Jack didn’t look at him then it would be an insult.

Jack looked, even if it was just for a moment. The guy wasn’t his type—he preferred his women curvy and his men solid enough to take a good fucking—but he was definitely intriguing. “Can I help you?”

Plump lips curved into a cruel smile. “Are you the man in charge?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Tell your people to be careful. My stock is irreplaceable.”

Jack took a deep breath, struggling to suppress a fresh trickle of rage in his gut. His firefighter’s life was on the line and Mr. Look Right Here was worried about things.

Asshole.

“It’s clothing,” Jack finally said. “You can throw it in the wash. It’ll all turn out fine. Just make sure to separate your lights from your darks.”

That earned him an outraged yelp. “It’s more than just clothing. It’s high fashion. You don’t just throw it in the wash!”

“And I’m sure your insurance will cover it.” Jack turned his concentration back to the building. If he strained his eyes he could just make out a hint of yellow coming back through the door.

Luke or Troy?

He couldn’t make out a face, not with smoke and ash smeared across his heavy plastic faceplate. Either way, he wasn’t alone. Slung over his shoulders in a full-on fireman’s carry was a slim body in what had once been a light-colored button-down.

Fuck.

The EMTs were running toward him, but they’d parked the ambulances a block down where the street widened.

Jack was closer.

He was trained.

And if he didn’t do something fast, he’d end up breaking the store owner’s jaw. His legs stretched out in front of him, eating up the pavement. Someone must have intercepted Mr. Look This Way because after a moment his nattering stopped, only to be replaced by an eerie quiet.

Crack. Pop. Sizzle. The sounds of the flames played like a skipping record in the distance, over and over again, but in a city as loud as New York it was only so much background noise.

Good.

Jack gestured toward the firefighter, indicating a safe place to put down the fire’s victim.

“Yes, sir.” That had to be Troy. They’d trained that snappy comeback into him in the army. Somehow, he always managed to make the two words seem like a curse.

The body hit the ground with a gentle thump.

“Smoke inhalation.” Troy pulled off his helmet, dropping it to the ground as he gave his report. “He was talking when we got in there. Conscious, not coherent.”

Jack checked the young man’s vitals. He might be unconscious, but his heartbeat was still strong and his breaths were coming in long sputtering gasps. He held up a hand to signal the EMTs that it was safe to come forward and—

Crack. Something gave out in the building. Whether it was two-hundred-year-old brick or the steel beams that had been exposed during the last round of renovations, Jack couldn’t be sure. He waited a few seconds, but he couldn’t spot any flash of yellow or movement. The only thing coming out of the building was smoke.

He reached for his radio. “Parsons, report.”

Nothing but static. Fear clutched at his insides. It could be normal distortion. Manhattan was full of old buildings with thick walls that made it hard for a signal to get through.

But if it wasn’t...

Luke was in there without anyone to watch his back.

If something happened to him, Luke was up a certain creek without a certain implement and Jack wasn’t about to lose another fireman. Not if he could help it. Not again.

It was the job. People got hurt. Troy’d banged himself up pretty good the previous fall, and Jack had gone to too many funerals and held too many mothers’ hands while they were crying. He wasn’t about to let that happen again.

No time to give orders. No time to do anything but react. Jack scooped up Troy’s helmet from where he’d let it fall to the ground, slammed it down on top of his head, and ran straight into the burning building.

Damn. He’d dressed for the scene in heavy yellow bunker gear, but his jacket was back on the truck and there’d been no reason to strap on a tank of air while he was directing things from the outside.

If anything happened, he’d be screwed.

That didn’t matter, not when cold certainty was still propelling him forward.

Luke was still in the building, and Jack wasn’t going to leave without him. Each step was firm and purposeful. Glass crunched under his boots.

“Parsons!” Jack needed to conserve his breath, but he also needed to locate his lost man. “Parsons!” he called a second time.

There, a thumping sound from the back. Thank God. Jack kept moving, avoiding the darkest points of the fire as sweat poured down his cheeks and pooled at the back of the spine.

The smoke was getting to him. He’d had enough inhalation damage over the years to recognize the signs.

The world was swimming. If he didn’t watch out, Luke wouldn’t be the only one who’d need rescuing. He ducked down lower, positioning himself underneath the smoke as he passed through the main body of the shop with its racks of elegant clothes that might as well have been gasoline.

Easy breaths.

He counted to himself, one, two, three.

Breathe in.

One, two, three.

Breathe out.

One, two, three.

In the back was a private changing room and a work station for an onsite tailor. Swank. This was where the booming sound had come from. A pile of bricks and beams covered the floor, and in the back a familiar yellow-coated arm was whacking away at the ground.

Thank fuck.

“If you’re trying for Morse code, you’re screwing up,” Jack told him.

In the back half of the storefront, the second floor had given way. Luke must have been positioned just right to take the majority of the damage. Poor bastard.

Luckily, most of the pretty steel reinforcements had been used to pretty up the front of the shop. What had fallen on Luke was mostly dried out old wood, hard and tough as steel after over a hundred years but not nearly as heavy.

“Parsons,” Jack ordered. “Report.”

The order wasn’t much, but it stopped Luke’s arm from flopping around like a fish out of water. “Captain?”

“Yup.”

“Fuck. I think I’m hallucinating.” No way a pair of legs and an arm should be that expressive, but somehow Luke managed to slump without standing up. He sighed.

“You and me both, Parsons.”

“Shit, you’re really here.” His legs straightened. “What the hell are you doing in here, Captain?”

“Pulling your ass out of the furnace. Now, report.”

“Ceiling collapsed.”

“No shit. Why didn’t you answer your radio?”

“It wasn’t working.” Luke’s voice was sharp and pained, but otherwise he sounded strong and coherent. Good. “I think it’s broken. I can’t feel my leg.”

Not good. “Could be nothing.” If it was just a pinched nerve then Luke would be able to walk it off once he was out from underneath the rubble. Jack needed to move the wooden beams before he could assess the damage to Luke. He needed—

A big hand clapped him on the back. “What are your orders, boss?” It was Troy Barnes and he wasn’t alone. He’d brought half the squad with him.

Damn, Jack had made a good decision when he’d promoted Troy to Lieutenant. Together they began shifting the debris, moving cinder blocks and beams until Luke could wiggle himself free. “Dante’s going to kill me.” He groaned as he stood up. His left leg had definitely taken some damage.

“I’m sure he’ll understand.” Jack slid one arm under Luke’s shoulder and tugged him upward. Muscles screamed in his back. He still worked out three times a week with the guys, he could carry a full load of equipment without any trouble. It was the two-hundred-and-fifty-pound firefighter in the equipment that was giving him trouble.

It was just the three of them left: Luke, Troy, and Jack. The other firefighters had taken their cue from the flames and skedaddled out the door, freeing up a path to the outside. They needed to hurry. The fire was dancing and teasing, flirting with them. Any minute now it’d come in for the clinch, and Jack didn’t want to be around for the grand finale.

“Go,” he ordered Troy.

“Not a chance, sir.”

The building was coming apart around them now. A pair of hoses were directed at the building and the force was making the beams rattle. They didn’t have time to argue, but Jack was going to be pissed once they were free of the rubble.

They started walking, slowing slightly as the amount of open space narrowed. Troy went first, blocking the smoke and the flames with his broad shoulders. Jack kept moving. He kept—

Creak. Sigh. Crack. Something broke free up above. Bang. The heat was getting to him. Either that or the wall on the left side really was wriggling like a snake.

Shit. Jack didn’t think twice. He gripped Luke tight around the middle and hauled ass toward the light. His hand was fisted in the back of Luke’s pants. His arm felt like it was about to fall off. His lungs—

He tried breathing through his nose, but it didn’t help. His lungs were screaming. This wasn’t going to be good. Even if they made it out of the burning building, he’d earned himself a night at home sucking down painkillers. If he was lucky, Mona would send over some soup. If he wasn’t, she’d bring it herself.

Only a dozen feet left to daylight. A brick tumbled to the ground in front of him, the first in a cascade of ugly masonry. Jack lifted Luke up and ran with Troy only a step behind him.

One, two, three. He counted off the steps in his head. Four, five, six. He exploded out the door and gravel crunched under his feet. He didn’t stop.

By the time they got across the parking lot, Luke was propelling himself forward with his good leg. Between the pair of them they made a two-headed, three-legged monster. The paramedics were hustling toward them. They untangled Luke from Jack, helping him up into a waiting ambulance.

“Damn.” Troy forgot to be polite for once. “I didn’t know you still had it in you.”

Jack pointed a middle finger in his general direction and started coughing up a lung. His head hurt. The world was spinning. He refused to go down, not when there were still boots on the ground and men to worry about.

“I can get someone to check you out,” Troy offered, his voice way too freaking cheerful. “Maybe grab you a ride to the hospital.”

Not a chance in hell. Jack forced himself to take a deep breath and swallow, even though his throat hurt. He took an experimental step forward. His knees were stiff. His back hurt. It killed him every time he took a breath, and—damn—he couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so alive.

It was energizing, addictive. Even when he knew it was better to stay away he felt himself getting drawn in, just like a lover.

And just like with a lover, one day he was going to get burned.

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