Excerpt – In Safe Keeping

Unedited Excerpt – Lucas gave the smoke filled room one last glance. There was nothing. He’d triple checked. He confirmed with a hand signal to Forrester he was moving and couldn’t help the sigh of relief as he exited the cabin and pulled off his oxygen mask as fast as he could. “Too damn close Attiker.” Lucas looked up at his lieutenant but was saved having to either acknowledge or apologize by the bottle of water thrust at him. He shot a grateful glance to Jacko who had timed his interruption perfectly and passed Jim Forrester one also. He took long gulps of water and didn’t even jump at the crash behind him telling them the roof had just caved in. They were in Kerrygate a small tourist area popular with hikers and campers a hundred miles north of Fort Collins, and at this time of year a complete fucking nightmare of brush fires that could escalate faster than you could say tourist. They’d contained everything in the last three days and the ground pounders were combing the area putting everything dead out. After being at the fire camp for over a week he was nearly dead out himself. “I hate to ask—” Lieutenant Cassidy started. “What is it?” Lucas interrupted knowing Ray Cassidy wouldn’t be asking if it wasn’t important. “All our engines are making sure it doesn’t move south. I need two in two out for the last campground.” Lucas nodded and glanced at Jacko. “Get Ricky and Karen. They’re the most rested.” Jacko nodded and turned shouting orders to the other men just clearing up. They would need four firefighters. Two in, two out, meant two to clear the structure and two to wait outside incase the first two got into trouble, and they would alternate. “I thought this was the last one.” He nodded to the smoldering detritus behind him that had once been a cabin. “There’s another six past the lake but our info reports them as deserted. The cabins themselves aren’t even fully constructed but the chopper pilot reported what he thought was smoke. I just wanted to double check before I let the ground pounders have at it.” Made sense. The type two crew—often not even fulltime firefighters—usually just did the mopping up. The lieutenant wouldn’t want them sending unless the flames were out. Lucas pulled himself to his feet and tried to look like he wasn’t going to have trouble staying upright. “I can send Flint,” Cassidy said doubtfully. Lucas grinned. “Nah, we’ll be quicker.” A spark of humor glinted in Cassidy’s equally as tired eyes. Amos Flint was thorough but unfortunately took three times as long as anyone else, and the expense of having their type two crew stood about wasn’t good for anyone. “On the plus side as soon as you report the area clear you can all go home,” Cassidy said cheerfully Hallelujah. They didn’t exactly have a hotshot crew. The fires currently raging further west were taking all the smokejumpers Colorado could get their Nomex covered hands on, so Lucas and his team were leading the scouting party. He pulled tighter his sweat encrusted yellow jacket and headed towards the utility vehicle Jacko had pulled up in. Lucas shot a weary smile at Ricky and Karen. Karen was due to change station soon—fifteen years experience had gotten her a lieutenant’s job down in Cherry Creek. Not that she didn’t deserve it, but he wouldn’t swap his trees for apartments if they offered him double pay. Karen glanced at him as he climbed in. “We’re just double checking it’s deserted?” Lucas nodded and they drove out past the small fire camp they had slept at for the past few days. He’d seen the new area when it was cleared. “How come the chopper’s not still looking?” Ricky asked Lucas. Ricky was their probie. Nine months on the job so far. “Because the fires west of Fort Collins need them all. We’re done except for the mopping up,” Jacko answered for him. Ricky nodded and looked out of the window and Lucas followed his gaze. It was beautiful in winter. Not that he didn’t appreciate the sun, but the dry weather brought so many problems and they seemed to have completely skipped past fall this year. Over the years he had known Greeley and Summerton to get the occasional snow flurry in September. He wasn’t the only firefighter who cheered that day. “When was the report of smoke made?” “0630 this morning but the chopper made a second pass and nothing was seen, so they thought it was just smoke being carried from area two.” Karen explained. “There are only three intact cabins, but another six or so in various stages of construction, and a clubhouse that’s going to house some stores and possibly a restaurant in high season. They were hoping to open this section in the spring but the contractor went under and there seems to be some dispute about who owns what so it’s been standing empty.” It took another fifteen minutes to reach the deserted cabins and Lucas peeled himself out of the utility vehicle not wanting to admit he had been struggling to keep his gritty eyelids up for the last five. “I can’t get a signal,” Karen reported almost instantly looking at her radio and Lucas nodded towards the fifty foot high granite cliff face to the back of the cabins which would explain the poor reception. There were the makings of a road that had been started at the base of the cliff but it ended on the rise going nowhere and what seemed to have been a small landslide. The forest stretched high behind the road and smoke trailed from it. He looked west. You could see the billowing black smoke but it was blowing away from them. He didn’t like it. The fires may be contained but the cabins were slam in the middle. It looked like the construction was going to include a lake and the area had been excavated but was overgrown with tall grasses, another fire hazard. He turned and walked to the first cabin. It didn’t even have a roof and it took barely a few seconds to confirm there was no one there. Not that he expected anyone. Karen led into the second cabin. This was a little more finished. The roof and walls were constructed and intact but there was no interior finish. He looked around for another minute and then followed Jacko into the third. On the surface this one was as unoccupied as the rest and while a quick search showed it was empty there was an old sleeping bag and the makings of a fire in the grate. Lucas stripped off his glove and checked the half burnt twigs were cold. Someone might have slept in here but not recently. He looked up as Karen called out and went into the second room. She was looking at something on the floor and bent down to pick it up. “What is it?” “A protein bar, unopened.” She turned it over in her hand. “It’s in date.” Jacko shrugged. “Those things are good for months.” “But bread isn’t,” Karen said, the urgency and worry apparent in her voice. There was an old rucksack on the floor that looked abandoned but Karen was right. It had a half-eaten plastic wrapped peanut butter sandwich in it. The bread didn’t look appealing, but he would have said it was two days old at best. “What do you think?” “Search everything,” Lucas instructed and they all fell into a practiced rhythm. After ten minutes going through the partially built structures Lucas was satisfied there was no one here. All there was left was some large type of structure that had intended to be the clubhouse. “Maybe it was someone passing through that decided to move quicker when they saw the smoke,” Jacko suggested. Lucas nodded but his skin prickled. “But you don’t think so,” Karen said flatly, her brown eyes flashing respect. Technically after her promotion she was his superior, but you would never know it, and the respect was mutual. He shook his head not knowing exactly how to express the feeling in his gut. “Let’s do a thorough check.” There was what looked like some partially built storage structures behind it. “Lucas?” It was Ricky. “Sir?” Lucas, Karen, and Jacko all went to the cabin door. Ricky was pointing towards the black smoke that was definitely not blowing in the opposite direction anymore. “Shit,” Lucas said eloquently. The wind had shifted. “Is the radio working?” Ricky shook his head and swallowed nervously. “Jacko get the truck going. Ricky go with him. Karen, come with me.” Everyone moved quickly and Lucas tried not to keep twisting his neck to see the dark plume of smoke getting bigger. He had to be sure, but he wouldn’t put his team in unnecessary danger either. They cleared the last building and ran for the utility scrambling on board. “Get us out of here.” If someone had asked him later, Lucas would never have been able to say what made him twist back around to look at the last structure, but as he did so something he saw out of the corner of his eye nearly stopped his heart. Blue. A small edge of blue peeking out from the side of the building that looked all wrong, and they’d missed it. “Stop,” Lucas yelled and Jacko obediently slammed on the breaks creating a cloud of dust. Lucas was on his feet before the wheels had stopped turning. “Lucas—” Karen started shooting a worried look as the smoke was turning yellow meaning the flames were growing nearer. The radio suddenly crackled. “Location.” Lucas heard the barked question from his lieutenant and Karen calmly take the radio off Ricky. He jumped from the truck and ran to the side of the cabin. Fuck. “What is it?” Jacko shouted. It was a car. A heap of rust. He’d delayed them for scrap metal that didn’t look like it was capable of driving anywhere. Smoke thickened the air as the wind whipped up. He could taste it. Angry with himself he yanked on the door handle and then stood frozen in shock. Crouched on the front seat and obviously trying to start the car was a young man. Lucas had a second to register his terrified green eyes, huge against such a milky white face. Lucas reached out his hand and the man shrank back. “We need to go. The wind has changed and the fire is heading towards us. Grab my hand.” For a heartbeat he stared at him and just as Lucas wondered if he understood English, he spoke up. “F-Fire?” Lucas didn’t bother with another explanation as his fingers closed over the man’s arms fully intending on hauling him bodily over the seat when a loud wail came from the back seat and he got the second shock of the day. A baby. Strapped in a car seat, red faced in fear and possibly temper she opened her mouth and wailed again. For the longest second he froze. Then he shook himself, backed up and yanked open the back door. His fingers remembered how to unstrap the baby even if his brain was trying to block it out. “Come on sweetheart,” he crooned as tiny fingers grabbed his jacket and he pulled her out.” Heart pounding he unzipped his jacket and tucked her inside turning her head away from the smoke. Mercifully the man seemed to get his brain in gear and he scrambled out, Lucas taking his arm. “Run,” he ordered seeing Karen coming towards them. “Is he alright?” Karen asked obviously seeing the man and wanting to check the baby herself. “You’re really fire—” The man blurted out then he looked over Lucas’s shoulder and his words died. Lucas didn’t need to know what had silenced him, He could taste the oppressive smoke tickling the back of his throat. “We need to go now.” Lucas let Karen guide the man towards the truck. Tried not to think, to remember. Now wasn’t the time. He couldn’t afford to get distracted. He took a last look over his shoulder, his hand cupping the little girl through his jacket and hurried after them. Jacko had gotten back behind the wheel. Karen was helping the man sit and Lucas threw himself into the first seat as Jacko gunned the engine. Lucas looked back to see him reach out and open his mouth to ask for his child when Jacko slammed on the brakes and Lucas pitched forward nearly getting flung between the seats. His arms anchored him quickly to stop his forward motion and to protect the child just as a deafening crash assaulted his ears as the truck jerked and slid. Jacko desperately fighting with the wheel to keep them on the road, but the rocks bouncing and hitting the wheels and the side were forcing the truck towards the dipped area Lucas knew had been excavated for the lake. He glanced at the window. The road that had been constructed had split. A few of the huge trees on the hillside had slid and cracked the tarmac of the half-built path. The truck wasn’t in danger of rolling because the incline wasn’t steep, but the road was completely blocked. Lucas took one look as the ground steadied. The smoke was getting intense. The fire was minutes away and they were trapped. “Everyone out,” he ordered just as lusty wails echoed from inside his jacket and Karen and Ricky stood obediently. “Give her to me.” The man’s high pitched cry was heard over the baby. “We have to move. The fire is—” “Then we need to stay in here,” his terrified voice cracked. Lucas shook his head. Inside a vehicle if the blaze overran them was the last place they wanted to be. They all had the new M-2002 fire shelters and while each of them was trained so they could nearly deploy them in their sleep it was the last thing he wanted to do. Lucas didn’t give him chance to protest and reached over yanking him to his feet as the others pulled their packs back on. The man reached for the baby but Lucas grabbed the front of his thin jacket to pull him forward. “We have one chance. You do exactly as I say, when I say it,” and without waiting for a reply pushed the man forward checking his own hold on the baby was still secure. They all jumped down and started running, Lucas’s hold on the man remaining tight. He looked to his right and saw the flames licking at the tall grasses of the lake area and scanned the smoke covered trees. They were trapped. The houses would go up. The cliff side was impassible and so was the road. They had no choice but to get in the shelters. He dragged the man along and stopped at the clearing where the truck had parked originally. The cliff face offered some protection but they had to be far away from the truck. Any further and they would also be too near the tall grasses. “Here,” he ordered and Jacko and Karen immediately ripped open their shelter packs. Jacko took over from Ricky as he fumbled and he could hear the hurried instructions. “Feet to the fire. Trap yourself in with your legs as tight as possible. Grab the handles, roll, and put your face down into the ground.” “What are you—” “Listen to me,” Lucas gave the man they had found his full attention. The heat and the noise was getting unbearable. “This is a fire shelter—” “But—” “And the only way we are going to survive,” Lucas interrupted raising his voice over the noise and the terrified cries of the baby. “I need you to lay under me. I won’t crush you but it’s going to be tight. Karen needs to take—” “No,” he cried and clutched at the baby who was still zipped in Lucas’s jacket. Lucas didn’t have time to argue, much as he wanted to. The flames were racing across the grass and the truck was nearly engulfed. They’d run as far away as they could before they were going to have to take shelter. “Down,” he yelled, and shook out the aluminum pack, stepping inside and wrapping them up. The baby was whimpering and Lucas banked down his fear that they would have enough air for all three of them even if the pack kept them from being incinerated. At least his hands knew what to do even if his brain was telling him what a tremendously bad idea it was. “Oh God,” moaned the man nearly indistinguishably, face pressed to the floor, the baby sandwiched between them, Lucas covering them both torn between trying to protect them with his body and not suffocating them. Wind suddenly gusted above them and everything went still. A torrent of heat and noise swept over them and Lucas determinedly anchored his legs and arms to keep them cocooned. He heard nearby trees whoosh as they burst into flames. Debris rained down on them and then he cringed at the almighty boom signaling the truck had exploded. Lucas pressed his face into the hair of the man and held himself still. Baby powder or something sweet tickled his nose over the god-awful stench of the thick smoke and he fought to stay in the present. Not now. Now wasn’t the time. He stayed icily rigid while the heat and noise raged above them. He tugged at the edges to keep them all enclosed and prayed. Because of his height he was the only one that had a larger shelter but he was supposed to be laid on his front and that was impossible with the baby. He would never know exactly how long the burn over lasted. It was likely a few minutes, but he was willing to swear to what he was convinced would be the remainder of his life at one point. All he could do was take small breaths and hang on to the pack while whatever hell was wreaking devastation around them. The second he felt the noise ease he counted another moment and heard Karen cry “clear.” He had a panicked second that all his muscles were cramped and he was crushing the baby and then the pack was ripped off them and Jacko pulled him to his feet. “Oh God, Oh God.” Tears streamed down the man’s blackened face and the baby’s cries grew inconsolable and Karen quickly unzipped his jacket and lifted her out. Alive. “Are you hurt?” Lucas barely felt the sting on his thigh where he had failed at sealing them in when the wind was at its fiercest. Lucas ran assessing eyes over them both. The baby’s wrap was only lightly stained with smoke and he took a shaky breath of utter relief. He lifted his head and saw Jacko checking Ricky. “Everyone okay?” “Thanks to you,” Karen muttered and shot him a relieved smile as her hands quickly and thoroughly checked the child. Lucas focused back on the man in front of him. “They will send an ambulance or a chopper as soon as they can. We need to get you both to ER.” “No,” the man nearly wrenched the baby away from Karen and took a shaky step back. Every alarm bell in Lucas’s head rang clearly and loudly. It was one thing being terrified when they first appeared in the panic to get safe, but surely now he would want a doctor to check the baby. “What’s your name?” The infinitesimal pause before the man answered sealed it for Lucas. He knew he was going to lie before the words came out of his mouth. “M-Michael. And this is my daughter, Mia,” he said almost challengingly. No last names. Were they on the run…or worse, did the child not belong to him at all? “She needs checking out.” She’d stopped crying but she needed medical attention. “Babies can go from fine to critical in seconds.” Lucas didn’t sugarcoat his words. “Karen has first aid training but I want to know she didn’t inhale any smoke.” Michael—although Lucas doubted that was his real name—reluctantly gave up the baby to Karen again and let her unwrap her and check. Karen—with three children of her own—soon had the mite settled and rewrapped. “She seems fine but she absolutely needs to go to the ER.” Michael looked doubtful and even though Lucas didn’t especially want to frighten him he had to hammer it home. “Toxins can easily get into the lungs. She can go from okay to being unable to breathe in minutes. The only thing that will confirm she is safe is a blood test.” Michael’s eyes filled and he staggered back putting a fist against his mouth in an obvious effort to get himself under control. Lucas reached out instinctively, feeling a complete shit but Karen had shot him an understanding look. She clearly had the same suspicions as he did. Michael’s knees wobbled and his face went from pale to alabaster. Lucas had him on the ground and his head between his legs in seconds. “That’s it. I got you. Just take a few breaths.” He glanced at Karen who was holding the baby. “She looks fine, but I just want to double check. I’m sorry I frightened you.” Michael took some steadier breaths and Lucas crouched down supporting him. They didn’t move for a few heartbeats and Lucas gazed at him assessingly. He wasn’t burned. It was probably shock. Then the radio crackled. Jacko answered it immediately and confirmed civilians including an infant and that they needed a chopper. The road was still unpassable. “Thank you.” Lucas looked down at the choked whisper. He doubted Michael was the baby’s father because he barely looked old enough to shave, although to be fair he was hardly seeing him at his best and that was a huge generalization. He also doubted the dark shadows under his eyes were from the last twenty-four hours either. Michael didn’t look like he had slept properly in weeks. “How old is she?” he asked carefully, knowing it was up to the cops to determine who they really were. Then he nearly forgot the question as Michael’s face softened and his eyes sought out the child. Whatever their circumstances were it was clear Michael was deeply attached to her. “Seven months,” he said carefully his voice holding a tiny bit of wonder as if he could barely believe it himself. Call him jaded. Call him a bastard. Call him whatever, but Lucas knew he was lying. Just not about what.