Excerpt: After The Fire

My friends at Quint 8, Rochester, NY

Book 1: Hidden Cove Firefighters

Prologue

“OH, MY GOD, the ceiling’s coming down!” It was all Mitch Malvaso got out. In seconds, a crushing weight slammed him into the floor, face first. As he hit the concrete, he thought of his sister Jenny, who was also in the warehouse, slapping water on the fire that caused the collapse. “Please, God, don’t let her die,” he murmured. Then the world went black.

When he awoke outside in the bright sunshine, he startled. Pain lacerated the backs of his legs. Burns. Through his bunker pants.

Sucking in a breath, he slitted his eyes and forced them to focus. The first thing he saw was that the fire, which had blazed like an angry monster, consuming Sinco Automotive’s five-hundred-square-foot warehouse, was out. Black smoke still curled from the building, where several companies of the Hidden Cove Fire Department had been called to the four-alarm blaze.

Were some of his men still inside?

He took inventory. He was lying on a stretcher, his airpack gone and his turnout coat off. Then things crystallized.

And reality hit him—where was Jenny?

When he tried to move, the burns scraped raw. He let out a long, low moan and consciousness momentarily dimmed. Then, he heard sirens and shouting, and people barking out orders. He shifted, and his breathing escalated with what now felt like hundreds of tiny pinpricks on the backs of his legs. He caught sight of his sister, lying on a blanket off to the left. He managed to yell, “Jenny, you okay?” but it came out like a rusty saw on wood.

After worrisome seconds, she inched up onto her elbows, groaning with the effort. “Yeah. I’m okay.” As if she’d been awakened from a deep sleep, she looked around. “Oh, no.” She scrambled to a sitting position. “Ahh…shit, that hurts,” she spat out but came up on all fours and crawled over. Kneeling above him, she said, “Mitch, oh, God, Mitch, are you all right?”

He drew in a breath. “I’m burned. But all right.” He reached out and gripped her hand, which was streaked with grime like her face. Her dark hair was damp and matted. “You sure you are?”

“I guess.”

Someone approached them. A medic, Jimmy, from Engine 12. “Hey, you two hanging in here?”

“Yeah.” Mitch surveyed the scene. Several firefighters lay on stretchers, the ground, or blankets. Some coughing, some too still. Medical personnel were tending to a few, left others alone.

Jimmy frowned. “Don’t worry, Cap, we’re working on getting your brother outta there.”

Both Jenny and he gasped. “Our brother?” Mitch said. “Zach’s not here, he’s on the night shift this week.”

All three Malvaso firefighters worked at the same station, he on the elite Rescue Squad, Jenny on Group One, Zach on Group Two of Quint/Midi 7, housed at fire department headquarters.

The young medic’s face blanked. Then he said, “Mitch, Zach and your cousin Gabe showed up here when he heard about the fire on his scanner. He barreled inside when he realized the damn thing was out of control and you two were in there. Gabe obeyed orders.” His cousin, a captain on another shift, was like a brother to him.

“Son of a bitch.” Mitch gripped the medic’s arm. “You know anything else?”

“The men that’ve been rescued said Zach pushed them out of the way when the wall started to cave on them after the ceiling fell on you guys.”

Mitch struggled to get up. He couldn’t. “Fuck, I can’t move.”

“You’re burned bad. We did some work on you already, but others were hurt worse so we’re gonna take you to the hospital right now.”

“No, I’m not leaving here until I know Zach’s okay.”

“Mitch—”

“No!” He reached out again for his sister; she flinched when he made contact with her arm. Burns reddened her skin. “Get Jenny some help. Do what you can for me, but I’m staying.”

Jenn raised her chin. “So am I.”

His heart in his throat, Mitch shifted his gaze to the building, watched the smoke circle like a lazy cat along the flat roof, and wondered if his baby brother was alive.

o0o

FIFTEEN MINUTES LATER, they still didn’t know what was happening with Zach. Jenn sat beside Mitch, ignoring the pain that danced along her upper body like electrical sparks. She stared at the warehouse where her brother was still inside. The medics had done some preliminary burn treatment on both her and Mitch, but since Mitch had dug in his heels and there were so many casualties and life-threatening injuries, they were allowed to stay here and wait.

It had been the worst fifteen minutes of her life.

“You okay, kiddo?” Mitch asked in the tone that always made her soft. The oldest of all five of them, he played the father role much of the time.

“Uh-huh.” She stifled a sob. As one of twenty-five female firefighters in the Hidden Cove Fire Department, about a hundred miles north of New York City and west of the Hudson, Jenn was tough. But this…

The fire had been routine; five trucks had arrived within minutes of each other. Three of the crews had mounted an interior attack when the ceiling fell, complete with beams and searing plaster; several firefighters had been trapped. Apparently they’d rescued her and Mitch’s crew. Now, special teams were digging the rest out.

She rubbed her eyes with her thumb and forefinger.

“Does it hurt bad, honey?” Mitch asked.

“No. Yeah. I guess.” She looked down at him and smoothed back his hair. “You?”

“Like a bitch.” Mitch coughed and sputtered. He’d removed his SCBA gear—his air had run out because he’d been in the warehouse longer than her—while waiting to be rescued. Consequently, he’d inhaled a lot of smoke.

Again she nodded toward the warehouse. “Mitch, Zach’s still in there…do you think he’s…” Jenn’s eyes focused on the structure. There were dead firefighters inside and out here. She just prayed Zach wasn’t one of them.

Though her brother rode through life on a short fuse and chased after too many skirts for her taste, she didn’t know what she’d do if something happened to Zach. All three Malvaso firefighters were close—since childhood they’d stuck together against their other brother and her twin sister, and the world in general. What if…

Her hand crept out to the side. “Mitello?”

They only used their given Italian names when things were really bad.

Mitch found her hand, clasped it. “Yeah, Genevieve?”

“If he gets out of there…”

When he gets out of there.”

“When. We’re going to do things different. All of us.”

“What do you mean?”

“I wanna have a baby.”

Her brother chuckled, then choked like a rookie eating his first smoke. His voice came out in a wheezy rumble. “Better find yourself a fella first.”

“What would you do different, if you had the chance?” Pain turned her voice raw. “I know you haven’t been happy with Cindy.”

“No, I haven’t been happy. And my kids need help.”

“Promise me, when this is over—” She gripped his hand tighter. “—you’ll do something about all that. You’ll make your life better.”

“Okay, I promise.”

She glanced back at the warehouse. “Zaccaria, too. He’s gotta get his act together. We’ll help him.”

Momentarily, Mitch closed his eyes. He looked like he was struggling to stay conscious. “All right. The three of us, we’ll do better. We’ll live better lives.”

Just then a shadow came over them. Both she and Mitch looked up, and when she saw who it was, Jenny’s eyes started to tear. “Oh, God, Grady.”

Her best friend in the world, and coworker on her crew, crouched down. Despite the cast on his arm, which had kept him off the line and out of harm’s way for this fire, he clasped her to him. She buried her face in his big, safe chest. “I just heard and came over.” He knelt to hold her more securely. She felt a hand in her hair. Soothing her, he said to Mitch, “What’s going on?”

“Zach…” Mitch cleared his throat. “He’s in there.”

What?

Jenny heard Mitch mumble an explanation.

Grady said, “Son of a—” but stopped. Stilled. His body went taut. Jenny drew back; Grady was staring at the building. She turned to see two firefighters stumble out. Both were covered with layers of grime and white dust.

One held on to the shoulders, the other on to the feet of an HCFD firefighter.

She tensed. Though she couldn’t make out who they carried, Jenny knew in her heart it was her brother.

He looked dead.


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