1.  1

“Goddamn it, Caldwell. Get your ass in my office. Now!”

I wince over hearing the Battalion Chief calling from the back of the station house. His voice is booming, echoing from deep inside that barrel chest of his. Studying the cards in my hand… pair of deuces, Ace high… it’s best I fold anyway.

Tossing the cards facedown on the table, I stand up. “I’m out.”

My buddies, my co-workers, my compatriots… they all keep their eyes pinned to their cards so they don’t have to offer me a sympathetic look. They’ve heard me called into the Chief’s office on more than one occasion and I know they feel for me.

But they’re also probably a little glad I’m getting ready to get my ass chewed, because my dumbass moves affect them as well.

Walking out of the kitchen, I turn down the back hall, which houses our bunks. The Chief’s office is at the very end. As I walk past the open doorway to the sleeping quarters, I hear, “When in the hell are you going to learn, Flynn?”

The room is dark but I don’t need to see inside to recognize the voice of my best friend, Tim Davis.

Taking a step back, I lean up against the doorframe and reach my hand inside to flick on the light. Tim is lying on his bed, his hands clasped behind his head. His dark brown eyes look at me with a mixture of affection and annoyance.

I decide to play stupid, just to ramp up his annoyance. “Learn what?”

Tim rises up from the bed, swinging his legs to the side. Resting his elbows on his knees, he clasps his hands and sighs deep before turning his gaze back on me. “You know what, but I’ll lay it out for you… when are you going to stop taking stupid risks?”

“Define stupid?” I ask, even though I know the answer. I just don’t feel like hearing this shit from Tim, because I’m getting ready to hear an earful from the Chief.

Tim looks back down to his hands and I hear him chuckle, but it’s not a sound filled with mirth. Instead, it sounds hard and bitter. When he looks back up at me, there is no smile on his face and his eyes hold just a bit of disgust.

I expect him to lay into me, but his voice is surprisingly soft. It stands at complete odds with his muscular and tattooed frame. “You know what I’m talking about so I won’t bother stating the obvious. But the next time you put yourself in unnecessary danger, just remember our motto… two go in, two come out. You enter harm’s way, you know one of us are coming in behind you. So yeah, I get that you don’t care if you get injured or killed in a rescue… but you know you’re risking our lives, too. You want that on your conscience if one of us gets killed?”

Guilt flashes like a nuclear explosion through my body. “I wouldn’t put you or any of the team in danger—”

Tim cuts me off. “Save it. You already have, and on more than one occasion.”

His voice is hard, which is foreign to me. Tim is about as big of a teddy bear as you can find. He has an easygoing nature, which is why we bonded so well.

“I’m sorry,” is all I get out before I hear the Chief calling me again.

“Caldwell! Where the fuck are you?”

Taking a deep breath, I stare at Tim a moment longer and then turn my back on him. I can’t stand that I’ve disappointed him. I could give a shit that the Chief is mad, but Tim? He’s like a brother to me and I don’t like letting him down. He needs to be able to trust me in any given situation, and to know that I’ve probably breached it has sent bitter acid swimming through my stomach.

Steeling my resolve as I head to the Chief’s office, I start to calculate the speech which will hopefully get me out of hot water. Unfortunately, nothing good is coming to mind. Fact is, I fucked up and didn’t follow protocol. Yesterday when we responded to a structure fire, I didn’t wait for the Captain to do a size-up. When I jumped off the truck, I barely had my Nomex hood and helmet on before I was running into the building. Tim was on my heels, cursing at me.

I couldn’t help it though. We were told there were occupants in the building—which there were—and I saw a safe entry point. Ultimately, I wasn’t even in any danger, but I’m still going to get my ass chewed because I didn’t wait the extra two minutes for the Captain to do the size-up.

Just as I reach the Chief’s office, but before I can knock, the speakers crackle and roar to life. A series of audible tones chime through, followed by a buzzer. The pager on my hip goes off but I don’t bother looking at it because a voice comes over the speaker. “Engine 209, Engine 113, Squad 15, Ladder 102, Ladder 94, Rescue 12, Battalion Chief 1, Air truck 15. Major working fire—532 Pennsylvania Avenue. Residential. Multi-family house, duplex. Be advised Dispatch has received multiple calls.”

I turn from the Chief’s door and head toward my bunk for my turnout gear. Easily slipping into my boots, I pull my trousers up, looping my arms through the suspenders. I slide my Nomex hood on and shrug into my coat, lacing my thumbs through the wrist gauntlets. After I have my coat zipped and velcroed tight, I push the hood back off my face so it hangs loosely around my neck. Grabbing my black helmet, the color of which signifies I’m a member of an engine company for the FDNY, I head toward the truck.

Engine 209 is on the move.

1

We are the first to arrive at the duplex but Ladder 94 pulls in seconds behind us. The Captain gets out to start his size-up, and I quickly don my self-contained breathing apparatus and face piece, pulling my hood over the top. I put my helmet on and pull the chin strap tight, my movements quick and efficient.

I note the housing unit on the right seems to be fully involved and within minutes, our ladder is deployed and spraying water from above. Members of the other engine are entering the front door. I can’t see any flames or smoke from the other side at this point, which is a good sign.

As I walk closer, I faintly hear noise coming from the left side of the unit. Since a narrow driveway runs along its side, I walk that way to investigate. The driveway is a luxury here in Brooklyn and I envy the owners for just a second that they don’t have to worry about parking.

As I near the windows at the back of the house, I hear the frantic barking of a dog. A big dog by the sound of it and it sounds panicked. I can tell immediately it’s coming from inside the house and I easily locate the window where the barking is the loudest. The window ledge sits pretty high, just at my chest as I put my face up against the glass to look in. I can’t see shit because the cheap, plastic blinds are partially closed but the dog is definitely in there. I have no clue if a human is inside, so I may only be going in to save a dog, but yup… I’m going in.

And nope… doesn’t matter that my Cap hasn’t given the okay.

Taking my ax, I break the window and breathe a sigh of relief that no smoke pours out. Making sure that all the shards of glass are clear of the window frame, I reach in and get a good grip on the blinds, pulling hard so they rip from the wall.

“Fuck, Flynn… can’t you wait two seconds?”

I knew Tim wouldn’t be too far behind but he’s not mad at me for entering so quickly. It’s pretty clear that this side of the house isn’t burning yet. I hear Tim speaking into his radio, letting the Captain know we’re making entry. “Cap… we hear a dog and possible subjects inside. Entering window to make a rescue.”

I think I hear the Cap curse but then he gives the go ahead. Putting my hands on the ledge, I give myself a mental pat on the back that I’m able to pull myself up and haul myself inside. Working out at the gym five days a week pays off. I make a less-than-graceful fall onto the floor and immediately jump up to take note of my surroundings.

I’m in a bedroom and the door is closed. Smoke is seeping in under the bottom and the air already has a hazy quality to it.

Lying on the bed is a huge dog… probably at least a hundred pounds. Although I only look at him briefly, it’s enough to know that he’s no ordinary mutt. His coat is jet black, long and glossy. His chest and paws are snowy white with a blaze of the same color down the middle of his face. Russet-colored fur adorns his legs along with two brown stripes right where his eyebrows sit. It makes his face very expressive, and he’s looking at me now as if to say, It’s about damn time.

I say it’s a “he” because his head is boxy and his chest is huge, so I’m guessing he’s sporting a pair of big, furry balls underneath all that hair. The dog looks at me expectantly and lets out another series of panicked barks, which are still deep and booming.

It’s then that I notice the dog seems to be lying on top of something, and based on the size and curves, it’s painfully obvious it’s a person under a blanket.

Taking a step toward the bed, holding my hand out, palm down, I speak in a calm voice, “Hey boy… you gonna let me help whoever that is you’re lying on? Huh? Gonna let me take a peek?”

Not surprisingly, the dog lays his ears back flat and issues a deep growl. My voice just issued through the amp of my mask and I completely sounded like Darth Vader. I know I’m probably going to catch shit for this, but I take my helmet off and toss it near the window. I see Tim standing there, his face peering in. I hold my hand up to him to just wait and I quickly loosen the straps on my face piece to pull it off.

With the mask gone, at least the dog can hear my real voice and hopefully won’t be as freaked. I, on the other hand, immediately notice the smoke is thicker and it’s hard to breathe. I’m guessing the fire has breached into this unit.

Inching forward carefully, I keep talking to the dog in a soft, reassuring voice. Now that the dog understands that I’m not Darth Vader and I’m here to save, not destroy, his ears perk forward and he just watches my progress with his head cocked to the side.

As I reach the edge of the bed, I take one last look at the dog, which I can now see is lying across the legs of whoever is under the blanket. He just stares back at me… expectantly.

“Do you mind if I pull these covers back?” I ask, feeling ridiculous as I do so.

His gaze at me never wavers, but he cocks his head in the opposite direction as if he’s saying, Well, what the hell are you waiting for?

Reaching out, I peel the covers back, revealing the face of a woman underneath. Her dark hair is lanky and her eyes are closed, with dark blue circles underneath. She’s on her side and it stands out to me that she has several piercings in her exposed ear, traveling all the way around the entire shell. Giving a quick glance at the dog, who still lies across the woman’s legs, I peel the blanket back further. When it reaches her shoulders, I realize that she’s naked underneath so I halt my progress.

Grabbing onto her shoulder, I shake her slightly. “Ma’am… I need you to wake up now. I need to get you out of here.”

She doesn’t move or respond in anyway.

Just great… she’s probably high as a kite right so now I’m rescuing a dog and a bombed-out druggie.

I look at the dog again and he just stares back at me, as if to say, It’s still your job to save her.

“Yeah, I know… I got it,” I answer his silent plea.

I try one more time to rouse her, tapping her on the cheek lightly. “Come on, lady. Wake up.”

She still makes no move so, with a sigh of frustration, I reach down to lift her up, sticking my arms under the blanket so it comes with her to keep her covered for modesty.

I give a pointed look to the dog. “Get up, you big lug, so I can lift her.”

Much to my surprise, the dog immediately bounds off the bed and walks over to the window, not caring in the slightest that there are glass shards littering the floor. His paws are probably going to get cut but I can’t worry about that now.

Bending my knees, I scoop the woman up and lift her from the bed.

Except my momentum is stopped as something pulls against us.

What the fuck?

Lowering her back down to the bed, I flip the blanket back and curse over the sight that greets me.

Her right leg has a manacle cuffed around it and it’s chained to the metal bed frame at the bottom.

Now I’m not so sure she has voluntarily taken drugs.

The sight of her chained to the bed makes my blood run cold and now there is a greater sense of urgency to get her out of this structure. Without wasting any precious time, I turn to Tim and call out, “Get the bolt cutters off the Engine. She’s chained to the bed.”

Tim’s face is immediately gone from the window but I don’t wait for him to return. I grab my ax and start hitting at the chain. It’s thick and stubborn, and under ordinary circumstances, my ax would be useless against the steel links. But when I saw this woman chained to the bed, I had a moment of clarity where I told myself, This woman will not die the way Marney did. I’m getting her out of here.

I strike at the chain with all of my might, sparks flying from the metal-on-metal contact. Mentally counting to myself every time I make a blow, it’s only on the eighth hit that the chain miraculously breaks apart and the woman is freed.

Tossing my ax near the window, I wrap the blanket more securely around her and easily lift her from the bed. She can’t weigh more than a hundred and ten pounds, if that.

When I reach the window, Tim is there with bolt cutters, which he immediately drops when he sees me with the woman. I squat down so her body is level with the window and pass her through head first to Tim’s outstretched arms. As Tim takes her upper body, I help to thread her lower half through the window until he’s cradling her fully.

“She’s unconscious… probably drugged. I can’t believe she was fucking chained to the bed.”

Tim doesn’t respond but he doesn’t have to. I know he’s as disgusted as I am.

“I’ll be right behind you. I’m going to get this dog out.”

Tim turns away but yells back, “Don’t get bit.”

Pulling my head back in the window, I locate and grab my helmet, face piece, and ax tossing them through the window, hearing them clatter on the concrete driveway below. The Chief will have my ass if he knows I had taken them off, but I know it helped to keep the dog at ease. Turning around, I look at the dog solemnly. “You’re not going to bite me if I pick you up, are you?”

The dog gives me a vigorous wag of his tail and I take that as his full acquiescence that he will be good and keep his teeth sheathed.

Squatting down, I wrap my arms around the dog’s chest and lift his front paws to the windowsill, resting them there. Squatting again, I reach his back haunches and haul him up, pushing him forward out the window. The damn dog weighs a ton but he doesn’t resist me. Once he realizes he’s going out the window, he kicks his back legs out against my chest, springing forward and leaping the rest of the way out. I see him land in the driveway with a grace that belies his massive frame.

Throwing my leg through the window, I follow behind him.

As I walk back to the front of the house, I see the fire is mostly contained. This turned out to be a fairly easy fire but I’m thankful that dog was barking, or else we may not have found the girl in time.

Speaking of the dog, I look around but don’t see the shaggy beast anywhere. Shrugging my shoulders, I head over to the ambulance. One EMT is placing an oxygen mask on the woman’s face, while the other takes her vitals. She appears to be gaining consciousness and I find myself curious as to why she was chained to the bed.

Reaching up, she tugs at the oxygen mask. The EMT pulls her hand away and tells her to leave it in place. Shaking her head back and forth, she pulls on it again, this time with more force than I would have thought she had, and rips it off.

“Capone,” she gasps. “Please, get him out of the house.”

The EMT looks at me and says, “Was someone else in the house?”

I nod my head and step up into the ambulance. “Her dog. That’s who she’s talking about.”

Sitting on the bench next to the woman, I lean over and take the mask from her hand. As I start to gently pry her fingers away, I tell her, “I got your dog out. He’s fine.”

Her fingers immediately go lax and the mask slips from her grip. I start to pull it back up over her mouth and nose, but my hands freeze when I look at her eyes. They are pinned on me and they are the most unique eyes I have ever seen in my life. I can’t seem to tear my gaze away.

They are gray—almost utterly devoid of anything other than that particular shade that is right in between black and white. Except… there’s a slight ring of green and gold flecks that hug her pupils and they stand out in stark contrast to the silver. She’s staring at me with the most thankful expression I’ve ever been bestowed.

Reaching out, she locks her fingers around my wrist. “Thank you,” she whispers, and then she loses consciousness again.

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