Excerpt from The Fire Inside
Book 7: Hidden Cove Firefighters
“Get the lead out, old man.” The insulting remark came from the lips of Captain Tess Righetti, an instructor at the Rockland Fire Academy in upstate New York.
Jack Harrison, aka John Mason on this little venture, had gotten the censure from her because he’d stopped to adjust his face mask—he hadn’t worn the damn thing in years and now had trouble making it fit. Attempting to conceal his annoyance, he said to the very crabby woman, “Yes, ma’am.” Hell, she’d had a bug up her ass since he’d gotten here.
She arched a brow. Her short brown hair was thick and all uneven, its color matching her dark eyes. “And try not to croak on me.”
“I’ll give it my best shot.”
Turning, he hurried into the simulated-burning building for the first maneuver. The structure was filled with mist, which mimicked smoke. Every time Jack went into a fire, even a pretend one, he was struck once again by the pitch blackness. Firefighters operated blind most of the time and he knew fear of the darkness was one of the hardest to overcome.
He followed five recruits carrying hose up three flights of stairs, feeling the strain of the sixty pounds of gear he wore. He’d stayed in shape in the Academy gym back home, thank God, but he was forty-five.
The drill involved splitting into teams of two and rescuing a tied-down dummy in a fake fire. The recruits were to extricate one of the “bodies.”
“All right,” the recruit-in-charge, Rob Hanley, said to the others. His breathing was fast from climbing the steps. “Pair up. Go low and feel your way for victims. We don’t know how many or where they are.”
Jack guessed there would be more than one. Three probably, since six recruits were participating in the first rotation. Following his partner, Jack entered a room and headed right. Hanley took the left.
As he felt around for the dummy, he heard in his ear, “This is taking a freakin’ long time, guys and gals. Has anybody got something?”
Right as she spoke, Jack’s hand came upon heavy padding. The dummy. “Me and Mason just found one.”
“Well, hallelujah.” Because all the recruits could hear, he heard her say, “You let Grandpa beat you out, weaklings.”
Groans from several mics. Hell, he was still trying to figure out why the woman harped on his age. It had never happened to him in all his years of voluntary training.
“Hand me the wire cutters,” Hanley said.
Jack did. The recruit needed the experience of freeing the victim, which wasn’t as easy as it seemed when he couldn’t see anything, so Jack backed off and let the kid do the work.
Ten minutes later, he allowed Hanley to walk backward down the staircase—the hardest position—as they carried the heavy dummy out.
Righetti met them at the door and got in Hanley’s face. “Why isn’t Grandpa doing the hard part? You coddling him?”
Jack’s temper spiked. She should be praising the young man’s performance of a difficult task.
Blank faced, Hanley answered, “I wanted the hard part, ma’am.”
The kid was definitely an overachiever. Jack knew that particular malady. It had afflicted him all his life. And his drive to be the best reached its peak in his role as a staff psychologist for three hundred firefighters in Hidden Cove.
Tess stayed on Mason’s ass because something was off about him. For one thing, he’d entered the class halfway through for the practical part, skipping the book learning. Fire Chief Lincoln had given a paltry explanation—how Mason had transferred from one academy to another for personal reasons. She’d never heard of that happening before. He was also middle-aged, which wasn’t that much older than her, but was double the age of the other recruits so the moniker fit. But he wasn’t getting any special treatment from her because of his age. Nobody under her watch would. Maybe if Joey…
Pushing thoughts of her brother aside, she glanced at the clock, then back to the recruits. “Take twenty laps around the gym, and you’re done for the day.”
Not one single person grumbled. Not even Mason. Actually, he seemed in pretty good shape. About six feet, linebacker shoulders, and now, after discarding the turnout gear, wearing shorts and T-shirt, she could see corded muscles in his legs and arms. He passed her as he ran—still not winded—and saluted. She hid a grin, though sass from recruits was unacceptable.
When the day ended, Tess headed for the shower in her office. Before she reached the door, Mason caught up to her. “Captain Righetti, a word?”
She stopped. His voice held authority. And something else she couldn’t name. She pivoted. He was taller than her, but she stiffened her spine and stepped back so she didn’t have to look up at him. “What is it, recruit?”
“Stop looking for me to make mistakes and concentrate on the others who need your support.”
“Excuse me? You dare question an officer? I could have you booted out of this class for that behavior.”
He leaned in closer. His dark hair was damp, and his gray eyes burned with intensity. His scent was sweat and man. “In my other life, I was the boss. I know how to treat people who work for me or those I’m training. Taunting me shouldn’t be your focus; these young kids need all your attention.”
“Now, wait just a minute. Do not tell me how to do my job. I don’t care who you are and where you came from.”
Easing back, he held up his hands arrest-style. “Okay, okay, I won’t again. Just think about what I said.”
Tess watched him jog to the men’s locker room. She’d overreacted to his suggestion, but he was way out of line to talk to her like that. And he was wrong. She knew it was vital to be hard on recruits. Otherwise, bad things could happen to them. She dismissed Mason and went into her office.
The maze was always a problem for recruits. In order to pass the practicals, they had to crawl blindfolded through a miniature house-like structure equipped with several barriers. As Tess Righetti tied the cloth around Hanley, who Jack sensed would make a great firefighter, she said, “This isn’t going to be a piece of cake, Hanley. Let’s see what trips up the big man on campus.”
Hell. Jack had warned her two days ago that she needed to be more supportive. Most of the line firefighters at any fire academy were tough—should be tough—but this woman was downright mean. And it didn’t set well with him.
Ms. By-the-Book held a stopwatch. “Go.”
Minutes ticked by. The kid should be out by now.
Righetti shook her head. “Looks like he isn’t such a hotshot after all.” Catching Jack’s eye, she arched a brow. “Go find him, Grandpa.”
Angry at her apparent joy in the kid’s failure, Jack stalked to the door of the maze, yanked it open and went inside. He’d done this blind, right before Hanley, but it was a lot easier when you could see. He circled the wall put up to stop the recruits, hit a bench placed in the only pathway and climbed up a few steps. He found the boy sitting on a ledge. It was the only way down and then out of the maze, but blindfolded you didn’t know how steep the fall was.
“Hey, Hanley. It’s me, Mason. Take the blindfold off.”
“Gotta finish.” Jack could hear the boy’s labored breathing.
“It’s too late this time around. Righetti already called you out.” What the hell? What did he have to lose? Jack sat next to him. “Remove the blindfold, son.
After Hanley pulled the cloth off, he looked down. “Shit. It’s only a couple of feet.”
“But could have been more. You know, there are techniques you can master for working in blindness.”
The kid removed his helmet and mask. His hair was plastered against his head, and his skin beaded with sweat. “Yeah?” He frowned. “You did it, right?”
“Uh-huh. But I had to learn how.” An idea struck him. “You know what, if you want, I can help you with your training.”
“What the hell is going on in here?” Righetti had come into the maze.
“Just conversing with Hanley.”
“It’s not your job to converse. Get out of here, Hanley. With your tail between your legs, so to speak.” Then her gaze lasered in on Jack. “Meet me in my office at the end of the day.”
When she started out, he whispered to Hanley, “Tonight, at the Radcliff Hotel where I’m staying. We’ll go over some stuff.” He glanced at Righetti’s retreating back. “No matter what she thinks, you’re going to be a top-notch firefighter.”
Tess had showered and changed into jeans and a hooded RFD sweatshirt before John Mason showed up. So had he, she saw when he arrived. He looked different out of the firefighter uniform. Wearing a soft-looking gray sweater that accented the smoky color of his eyes and made his shoulders seem broader, he didn’t appear contrite at all.
Standing with his legs apart, he dug his hands in the pockets of his jeans. “So, what did you want to see me about?”
She didn’t invite him to sit. “You damn well know what this is about. You’re interfering in Hanley’s training.”
“No, I’m helping the kid. Instead, you set up more roadblocks than the maze itself.”
Her eyes flamed. “That’s it. I’m calling the chief. You’re out of this class, Mason. I don’t care what strings you pulled to get into the Academy halfway through. I’m going to have you tossed.”
“Go ahead and call.” He took a seat of his own.
She clicked into her phone, searched for a number and punched it in. “Hi, Mary. It’s Tess Righetti. How are you? The grandkids?”
It was his turn to look surprised.
“Super. My youngest went to kindergarten.”
“What’s his name again?”
“Mark. Thanks for asking.” They chatted a bit more. “Can I help you with something, Tess?”
“Yeah, I need to talk to the chief.” She waited, drumming her fingers on the desktop while the call was transferred. Then, “Hey, Chief Lincoln.”
“Tess. What can I do for you? Is the recruit class going well?”
“The class is fine except for one recruit, John Mason. He’s disrupting my supervision.”
“Ah, Mason. Good guy. He’s from downstate. Came here to train when he unexpectedly had to move to Rockland.”
“Be that as it may, he’s out of line in his treatment of other recruits.”
“In what way?”
She filled him in on Mason’s interference.
“Sounds to me like he’s trying to help.”
Seriously? She could feel her face heat. She liked Chief Lincoln, and usually he supported the Academy staff. “What’s going on here, Chief?”
“He knows a lot about firefighting from his past…job.”
“I don’t care what he knows.”
A pause. Then, “Just work with him, Righetti.”
The use of her last name told Tess the conversation was over. “Yes, sir.”
When she disconnected, she glanced at Mason. He sat with his arms crossed, but his expression was neutral. Not gloating as it should have been. “Lincoln says you’re staying.”
“Good for me. And I’ll apologize for having challenged you in front of the kids.”
“And promise not to do it again?” Shaking his head, he stood and moved closer to her. “I won’t do it in front of them, but please think about letting up a bit.”
“Not going to happen. Coddling recruits is the wrong thing to do.”
“And you know that how?”
His brows knitted. “Would you like to talk about that? Maybe there’s a root cause for your rigidity.”
“I’m not frigid.”
He blinked. “I said rigid.” Now, he chuckled. “But the other’s good to know.”
“You can leave. I don’t want to analyze my personality or views on firefighting with you.”
Reaching out, he grasped her arm. His touch was firm but gentle, a feat almost impossible to pull off. “I’m sorry for whatever happened to you. The offer stands, anytime you want to take it.”
With that, he let go of her, turned and walked out.
What the hell? A recruit offering to talk things out with her? Invading her personal space? Something was definitely different about him. She glanced at her computer. Hmm. Circling the desk, she sat down and called up a browser. Typed in John Mason, New York State. The chief had said, He’s had experience with firefighting. She added firefighting to the search. So many names came up she couldn’t possibly find him that way. Damn, she was going to have to keep a close eye on the guy. When the thought made her uncomfortable, she switched off the computer and stood.
What she needed was a glass of chardonnay and a bath. That would erase all thoughts of the maddening man who’d just left her office.
Later that night, Jack pulled open the door to his hotel room and found five recruits lined up like soldiers going to their deaths. “Hey there, Hanley. You brought your friends?”
“Yeah. I hope it’s okay. They get…well…you know.”
He smiled warmly at them. Poor kids. “Yeah, I know. Come on in.”
When he’d moved up to Rockland, Jack had booked a suite with a sizable bedroom and a large sitting area filled with cushiony chairs and a couch. He said, “Not sure there’s enough furniture, though.” “We can sit on the floor.” A young blonde girl stood close to an equally blond guy; they dropped down on the rug, while the others found seats.
They’d left him a chair, so he took it. “You all look nervous. Don’t be. Start with telling me your names.”
Jill and Jordan were the two on the floor. Twins, like his children. The others were Mae, Mick and, of course, Rob Hanley.
Hanley spoke first. “Can I ask something before we start?”
“You’re not a recruit, are you?”
“I’m in your class,” Jack hedged.
“Yeah, but you know a lot and you don’t act like us, plus you’re old.”
“Thanks for reminding me. But I assure you, I’m here to get as much information from the recruit training as I can.” Jordan on the floor asked, “Are you a plant?”
“Like, undercover for the officers.”
He laughed out loud. “No. And I give you my word, nothing said tonight will go any further.”
They exchanged glances. One nodded, then the others followed suit. Again, Hanley began. “You said you had some techniques for operating blind. For, um”—his Adam’s apple bobbed—“for fear.”
“I do. Let’s start with the fact that seasoned, line firefighters get scared sometimes. It’ll happen when you’re in a burning building or afterward, and could crop up at any point in your career.” He was reminded of Tony Ramirez and Sydney Sands, who’d had the experience. “I know of one case where the man had been fighting fires for almost twenty years and got trapped. He told me later he was scared to death.”
Jack had to smile at the hope that came over their faces, one by one. Damn, he was good at this. He could have an effect on kids just starting out.
And he knew, in his heart, he’d made the right decision to conduct biweekly support groups for recruits at the Anderson County Fire Academy come spring. That was the reason he was attending this particular class.
“Let’s start with visualization.”
The hot water soothed every bone in Tess’s body, especially the one in her ankle that she’d broken a year ago. The one that still wasn’t strong enough to allow her back on the line. Instead of dwelling on her disappointment, Tess luxuriated in the sweet jasmine-scented bubbles in the tub—the water pulsing out from six jets—and the candles that glowed all around the bathroom. Picking up her chardonnay, she relished the tart taste of the wine and how it went down smooth, how it settled her nerves. Nerves that one very annoying man had activated.
Who the hell was he? She went back over what he’d told her, what the chief had implied, and she guessed she could live with his secretiveness, but she wasn’t about to take advice from a mystery man. Besides, he was wrong about going easy on the recruits.
After a half hour of decadence, her body was relaxed and calmer. Her irritation at John Mason had diminished. As she got out of the bath, she thought about dinner. She’d picked up pizza from a local place, along with a gooey chocolate-chip cookie. She dried off, dressed in a red, one-piece pajama thing she could live her life in and had reached the living room of her patio home when the phone rang. She checked caller ID and smiled at what she saw.
“Hello, favorite aunt,” she said.
“Ha, tesorino, I am your only aunt. How is my girl tonight?”
“I’m fine, Aunt Sabina.”
“Are you liking the Fire Academy any more now?”
“A bit.” She could hear the sadness in her own voice.
“You are still sad because of your ankle?”
“Uh-huh. Because it’s not healed enough to go back on the line.”
“For me, that is a blessing. I worry enough about the other three.”
The other three, Mitch, Zach and Jenn Malvaso, were firefighters downstate. “How are my cousins this week?”
“Mitch is very busy. They keep giving him more and more responsibility.”
“He probably loves it.”
“I took care of Genevieve’s Angel yesterday. She is growing so much.”
“I love the pictures you sent.”
“And Casey’s girls spent last night with me.”
“You have a lot of grandchildren now. From all your kids.”
“Not the one I am speaking to. There should be a nice man in your life who gives you babies.”
Because Tess had lost her parents when she was fourteen, Sabina and her kids were the only family she had. She and her brother had gone to live with the Malvasos for six years after the accident that took away their mother and father. Since then, Sabina viewed her as another child. Sabina was her mother’s sister, which was why Tess didn’t have the same last name. “I don’t think I’m cut out for marriage.”
“Bless your heart, you don’t know anything, Teresa.”
Again, Tess laughed. “Maybe not.”
“Tell me about the teaching.”
“You know, I like it. I can contribute to the department by training the best recruits.” Contrary to what Mason thought. She spoke more of the fire department, which was her life.
Before Sabina disconnected, she said, “Zach has reserved a house for all of us next summer in the Finger Lakes. We hope you can join us.”
Images of the Malvaso clan and their kids made her smile. “Oh, Aunt Sabby, I’d love that.”
“Good.” She gave her dates. “Meanwhile, stay in touch. And remember what I said about men. I still miss my Angelo.”
“I know you do. I miss him, too.” The patriarch Malvaso had treated her and Joey as he had his own children.
“Goodbye, dear. It is your turn to call me next week.”
“I will. I promise.”
Tess hung up, feeling nostalgic. After rocky beginnings in their relationships, all her cousins had gone on with their lives. She must not have gotten the gene that enabled a person to pick up the pieces and go on. Or maybe those pieces were permanently broken. On that negative thought, Tess sought out her pizza.