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TORCH

Copyright 2005 by Julie MacShane

Prologue
The River, Part I
Saturday, May 26, 2001

As darkness fell, there was an impasse on the high rails of the Fairway Bridge. Petite, strong-willed Mary Maguire clung to the rails 60 feet above the surging Penacook River, but her equally strong firefighter daughter Bette was doing her best to talk her out of what looked like a suicide attempt.

Bette’s pleas were met with only a stone face and a far-off look in her mother’s eyes, as if she hadn’t been hanging right there on the bridge with her daughter for the past 15 minutes, as if she hadn’t been holding on for dear life while the violent wind whipped their long dresses and their hair until they stung against their tender flesh. Bette didn’t know how to get her mother down if her mind didn’t come back from wherever it had gone.

Bette tried to forget her mother’s disturbing revelation that had sent her into this comatose state. Yes, I’m upset, but it’s not worth dying over. If she’s going to jump, though, I’m going with her.

Down below, some of her family and the Webster, NH, emergency personnel — including most of her squad — watched and waited. Bette knew that one of the people on the bridge, someone very close to her, kept a devastating secret. One of them had lately begun setting fires. Although she didn’t know the arsonist’s identity, the knowledge that someone was trying to hurt her in this way pained her heart and sickened her stomach.

Bette was distracted from her mother’s plight by the sound of a loud argument down on the bridge. Her father, William Maguire, and Fire Chief Ed Hanson, once best friends, were involved in a shouting and then a pushing match. Lt. Patrick Keane, dressed in a suit and tie like the other men, stepped in between them, but William slugged Bette’s lieutenant in the face. Keane staggered back into the arms of other firefighters, who rushed forward to part the two older men.

Meanwhile, the deputy fire chief was barking orders to helicopter and boat crews in case the women jumped or fell, but not much could be done to get them down except place someone high up who had a persuasive tongue. Joe Griffin, Bette’s friend and fellow firefighter, volunteered. He stripped off his tuxedo jacket and dressed in a rescue harness and life preserver.

Bette could see Joe was preparing to come up and get them, but she knew it would do no good. I’m the only one who can get my mother down off the bridge. She hasn’t listened to my pleading; maybe she’ll listen to my mother-centric logic.

“Mom, you will ruin the memory of this happy day if you jump, you know that.”

No response to Bette’s shouted words. Mary just shivered in the wind.

“If you jump, you will die. If you kill yourself, it will be a mortal sin, you know that,” Bette said.

Mary was a strict church-going Catholic, but even those words didn’t stir her. Bette gritted her teeth and pushed the logic further.

“Do you really want one of us — it’ll probably be me — to pull your dead, disfigured body out of the river? A closed casket, Ma. Think how embarrassed Val and I will be of you and how you ended your life.”

No response. It was like Mary was in another world. Her hands were white on the gray bridge rail.

Suddenly, one of the cars by the side of the bridge exploded in a ball of flame. Everyone dove for cover. Bette grabbed the bridge as the air seemed to rock. What the hell is happening? She glanced quickly at the fire engulfing the car and felt its heat on her face, and when she turned back to her mother, Mary was still a blank. How could my mother not hear that, not react to that?

With a flash of lightning and a boom of thunder, the dark skies opened up and rain began to fall, making hard plink-plink sounds on the steel bridge ties and heavier plonk-plonk sounds on the vehicles blocking the bridge. The rain added to the torrential weather the past week that had flooded low-lying homes, swallowed the smaller bridges, and boosted the power of the Penacook.

Finally, Mary stirred, as if the touch of the rain on her face had revived her. She blinked through the droplets, looked up, looked around her, and then looked at her daughter. “Bette, what’s happening? What am I doing up here? Get me down. I’m slipping.”

Bette held out her hand and Mary gripped it, but her feet slipped from their place on a slender rail and she fell, yanking Bette from the bridge. The two women tumbled through the air.

Out of the corner of her eye Bette saw someone jumping off the bridge. The next thing she knew she was plunging into the cold water and everything went black.

-- END PROLOGUE --


Copyright 2005 Julie MacShane. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.


Chapter 1

Six months earlier: Dec. 1st, 2000

Night after Thanksgiving

12:45 am

Il Forno, the Maguire family’s Italian restaurant, was usually a quiet and dark place after closing time. The night after Thanksgiving, however, that was not the case.

A hissing sound could be heard from the kitchen and a small, bright light wavered in the darkness of the main dining room. Between the source and ignition, the molecules in the air seemingly bounced with anticipation. Meanwhile, the tables and chairs, the baskets and jars on the walls, the shiny kitchen equipment, the plates and bowls and pasta, watched and waited with paralyzing dread as the end drew near.

Through the cracks in the insulation around the windows, a strong succulent air blew in and swirled around the room, mixing fresh air with gas. Was it attempting to blow out the candle? The flame flickered, but held, almost as if it were its destiny to stay lit. It was the destiny of the gas to meet fire, to explode, to ruin, to lay waste. The wind sighed; the wind moaned. Some things can’t be changed, not even by otherworldly spirits with the best of intentions.

When hiss did meet light, when the balance of air and gas in the room was just right, when the explosion erupted, a mass of wood, plaster, insulation, metal, and glass would all be propelled outward. The doors and windows would explode from the pressure and random tables and chairs would be flung out into the snowy yard.

One heavy cupboard in the lobby would fly out the front doors and crash into the electric pole near the restaurant, causing it to sheer in half, ripping out lines and disrupting power to thousands of Webster residents. The sides of the building would buckle outward, and some of the weakest walls would break and collapse, causing the ceiling to fall down on top of them.

Fires would break out in the kitchen and main dining room, as well as outside the building as the broken power lines sparked and lit the roof on fire.

Anxious neighbors hearing the sound and smelling the smoke would call the fire department. No humans would be hurt, but the pizzelle maker, which had pressed Italian cookies for 35 years, would fly through the air and knock a crow from the cold sky.

It would be the end of the restaurant, the end of many dreams, but it was also the beginning of something else. Whether it would be a good something was as up in the air as the pizzelle maker had been for the short time before it crashed to the ground.

* * *

About two miles away from Il Forno, across the sleeping city of Webster, NH, the Station 10 firefighters were still awake and alert. They had just eaten a late dinner after coming back from an accident where a car packed with teenagers had slid off the road. Amazingly, all the kids had been wearing seatbelts so there had been injuries, but no DOAs. The firefighters were thankful, but still exhausted from the work of hauling the passengers out of the pried-open car and up a slick, icy hill to the waiting ambulances.

Outside Station 10, firefighter Bette Maguire, her short blonde hair sticking up with static electricity, her cheeks cold red, her breath frosty, leaned over and cleared out the new snow from around the nearby hydrant, her task whenever it snowed. She was wondering how her parents had fared without her that Thanksgiving day at the restaurant. Although to her squad mates it had seemed only natural that she work the holiday since she was the junior person, Bette knew that her parents had probably taken her missing one of the busiest days of the year as some kind of affront to the family’s stability.

Sighing, Bette thought she was alone with her thoughts until a snowball smacked her on the butt.

Flinching from the smarting pain, Bette whipped around and was not surprised to see friend and squad mate Joe Griffin standing there in Station 10’s driveway, tossing another snowball between his bare hands. His WFD regulation blue jacket and pressed pants did not hide the fact that he was tall and lean with wide shoulders, and had a worked-on muscular physique. His grinning face showed bright white teeth in a tanned face that was due more to his Native American mother than to the sun.

Bette brushed the snow off what had been the seat of her dry blue uniform.

“You!” Bette glanced around the fire station’s perimeter, but they were alone in the night. “What are you doing out here bothering me?”

“Checking to see if you’re doing a good job, Betty,” Joe said, cocky as a 6-year FD veteran, 31 years of age, deliberately mispronouncing her name to tease her.

Bette stood up to her full 5 ft 9 height, only 3 inches shorter than Joe. Her high, blonde eyebrows and pale complexion shone in the station’s driveway lights and contrasted against her clean, dark blue work clothes.

“I’m not a probie anymore.” At the tender age of 25, she’d stopped being a probationary firefighter or “probie” only a month previously, after a grueling six-month trial period at Station 10. But she’d had enough time to learn about snowball fights and competing against Joe.

“That doesn’t mean you can’t screw up!” Joe said.

“And that snowball?” Bette took a step toward him, swaying her hips, trying to distract him with her feminine charms, as she pulled a snowball out of her coat pocket and hid it behind her back. It was dark out; maybe he wouldn’t notice.

“Your ass was a very tempting target.” Joe’s smile lit up his shadowed face and dark hair, a lock of it falling over his forehead as he cocked his head.

Suddenly, Bette ran toward him with the snowball, surprising him as he ducked away, guarding his head, but she dunked the snow down the back of his jacket.

“A tempting target? Well, you’re a slow-moving one!”

“Ahh, that’s cold.” Joe quickly turned, his face red, and reached for her, one hand still on his snowball.

Bette struggled against him. She considered herself almost as strong, although Joe had the advantage and never used his full strength against her. Bette was definitely more agile, which came in handy when she was running circles around him on the basketball court.

Despite Bette’s fighting, Joe managed to shove his snowball down the front of her jacket, giving her breasts a frozen shock, but pissing her off, too.

“You’re cruising for a bruising.” Bette pushed into him with all her 160-pound strength, tipping him over onto the front yard’s two-foot-deep snow.

Joe landed with a poof of snow and a groan from his chest. “You never let me get away with anything!”

“Why should I?” Bette replied.

Joe smiled from the snow and reached up. “I don’t know. Maybe because you like me a little bit?”

“Oh, grow up.” Bette grasped his hand to pull him up.

Instead, Joe pulled her down on top of him and kissed her. Bette was glad the neighborhood was deserted, the station’s bay doors shut.

“I’m not enough of a grown-up for you?” Joe teased her, rubbing his cold nose against hers, reaching under her jacket to tickle her. “Is that why you haven’t introduced me to your parents?”

Joe was smart and ambitious, but her parents wanted her to date and — god forbid — actually marry a white-collar professional. They knew about Joe in a vague way by grilling her sister, Valerie, who was more pliable. They had no real proof of a relationship, however, and Bette wanted it kept that way.

Keeping the important parts of her life — friends, family, Joe, and her career — separate from each other was like wearing a Scott oxygen canister on her back while a roll of hose was slung over one shoulder and an axe and a crowbar hung off the other side of her fire-retardant jacket to balance her as she ran in heavy boots up three flights of stairs choked with smoke: difficult, but necessary.

The station house door opened, saving Bette from answering her partner. “Joe!” she whispered, scrambling to get free. “The door!”

“What?” he asked. “Are your parents here? Should I bury myself in the snow?”

“Kids!” firefighter Stuart West shouted out the door, his voice loud in the quiet night. “Time for bed!”

Bette groaned and Joe finally let her go. She popped up from underneath the snow cover, and Joe was next. They wiped off the snow from their clothes and headed nonchalantly for West, who was grinning from ear to ear.

The 5 ft 10 engineer, with his dark curly hair and stubbled face, usually took Thanksgiving off, but West was working that tour so he could take the next one off and be with Rose St. Pierre, who was Bette’s roommate.

West, almost 40, had dated Rose, 28, a rookie police officer, a few times and, to Bette’s great anxiety, they really liked each other. She knew both of their disastrous dating histories and feared another disaster was imminent. Plus, she wondered what Rose had revealed about her to West.

Bette had told Rose secrets she didn’t want coming back to haunt her, including how good Joe was in bed: “awesome body and technique;” her rants against her squad mates when they pissed her off: “arrogant bastards;” and general personal details: her father once made her wear a chicken outfit to promote the family’s first restaurant.

The thought that West knew any of that made her anxious. He enjoyed giving her a hard time.

“Look at you two — you’re soaking — and you just put on new uniforms. Tisk, tisk. That’s what you get for trying to neck in the snow.”

Joe socked West on the shoulder. The men grinned at each other, as if congratulating Joe on somehow scoring with a woman he was already involved with. Bette rolled her eyes.

“Us? Necking? Never!” Joe said as he winked at Bette.

Bette smiled at him and Joe returned it with a look of such happiness and devotion that it made her heart ache. Maybe she should try to make her parents understand that she and Joe were a positive force that could not be denied. Maybe.

“What, were you too chicken to come out and join us in a snowball fight, Stuart? Afraid we’d ruin your pretty uniform?” Bette taunted him with a wild smile.

West’s eyes widened at the implied, impertinent challenge. “Chicken? I’m not chicken! Give me some snow and I’ll show you who can pound out a few!”

Suddenly, the station’s siren went off, calling them back into the building and returning them all to a sober state.

--END Chapter 1--


Copyright 2005 Julie MacShane. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.